Elisa Segnini and Elizabeth Jones – “I was back in a dark wood”: Don Paterson’s “The Forest of the Suicides”

"I was back in a dark wood": Don Paterson's "The Forest of the Suicides"

Elisa Segnini and Elizabeth Jones

Published in Connotations Vol. 24.1 (2014/15)


Through an analysis of Don Paterson’s “The Forest of the Suicides,” the article examines creative translation as a process that sheds light on the specificities of the source and creates new meanings in the context of the target language. Taking into consideration the main variations in Paterson’s re-writing of Dante’s canto xiii, among which the substitution of the 13th century Pier della Vigna with the 20th century poet Sylvia Plath, the essay illustrates how “The Forest of the Suicides” functions simultaneously as an interpretation of Dante’s canto and as a means to retell Plath’s suicide through the lens provided by Dante. Re-writing Dante’s text while imitating Plath’s style allows Paterson to comments on Plath’s suicide-an event that is usually regarded as gossip and sensationalism. Furthermore, the article underlines how Paterson’s thoughts on translation and re-writing are reflected in the metanarrative of “the Forest of the Suicides.” On the one level, deviations alter the meaning of the source, while on another they are instrumental in reproducing the interdependence of sound and content, as well as the intertextuality at the core of Dante’s text and the ambivalent attitude of author and pilgrim. The adoption of Plath’s poetic voice allows Paterson to challenge traditional notions of authorships within and beyond the source text.

The only pure suicide is self–strangulation; everything else requires the world as an accomplice.
(Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows 76)

In hell even the trees are not blameless. Particularly the trees.
(Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows 133)

Don Paterson's "The Forest of the Suicides" was published in 2003 in Landing Light, a collection of 38 poems that, besides this version of Dante's Inferno xiii, includes five more re–writings after classics by Cavafy and Rilke. The poem has been hailed as an example of creative translation, "a process which opens up classic texts and reveals new meanings for contemporary readers" (Stafford 234) and, as such, includes several variations. The most startling of these is the substitution of the thirteenth–century Pier della Vigna with the twentieth–century poet Sylvia Plath: starting from this consideration, this article illustrates how "The Forest of the Suicides" functions simultaneously as an interpretation of Dante's canto and as a means to retell Plath's suicide through the lens provided by Dante. I will argue that re–writing Dante's text while imitating Plath's style allows Paterson to comment on an event—Plath's suicide—that is usually regarded as gossip and sensationalism. My claim is that creative translation sheds light on the specificities of the source and creates new meanings in the context of the target language.

[→page 144] In what follows, I will therefore summarize Paterson's thoughts on translation and re–writing, and point out how this poetics is reflected in "The Forest of the Suicides." The poem reproduces the plot line and subject matter of Dante's text, translating its images and rhetorical devices; these deviations, on one level, alter the meaning of the source, while on another they are instrumental in reproducing the interdependence of sound and content, as well as the intertextuality at the core of Dante's text and the ambivalent attitude of author and pilgrim. The adoption of Plath's poetic voice allows Paterson to challenge traditional notions of authorships within and beyond the source text.

Paterson's Conception of the "Poetic Version"

In the essay "The Lyric Principle," Paterson reflects on a recurrent feeling shared by poets, the suspicion that "our best lines [have] already been written by someone else" (8). Elaborating on a statement by Renato Poggioli, who comments on how poets choose to translate mainly because of "elective affinities" with other artists, Paterson adds that poets do so because the process opens "a path to a new way of writing a poem." He continues by stating that "somehow, by assuming this voice in the target language, you'll lose or modify the voice you've mistakenly come to think as your own" ("Interview with Marco Fazzini"). These thoughts are important for contextualizing a poem like "The Forest of the Suicides" in which Paterson adopts not one, but two poetic voices—since he is simultaneously translating Dante and imitating Plath's style. In a public reading of the poem at an event organized by the Edinburgh University Literature Society in 2012, Paterson in fact emphasized his poetic affinity with Plath and expressed his admiration for her art, going as far as calling her a "genius," a "far superior poet" to her husband Ted Hughes ("Don Paterson 'Forest of Suicides'").1)

However, Paterson does not see himself as a "translator" and declares himself to be skeptical about the possibility of translating poetry. [→page 145] In an interview with Atilla Dosa, he points out that "[t]he surface is the one that is impossible to translate, because those things of which you're most proud as poets depend wholly on idiomatic circumstances, tiny acoustic resonances, tiny shades of meaning and associations, that can have no direct equivalent in the host language" ("Interview with Attila Dosa").2) He refers to "The Forest of the Suicides," just as he does to his re–writing of other classics, as a "poetic version," and distinguishes this "version" from translation by arguing that the latter "tries to remain true to the original words and their relations […]. It glosses the original, but does not try to replace it. Versions, however, are trying to be poems in their own right; while they have the original to serve as detailed ground–plan and elevation, they are trying to build themselves a robust home in a new country, in its vernacular architecture, with local words for its brick and local music for its mortar" ("Fourteen Notes on the Version" 84).3) In tune with other authors/translators such as Umberto Eco, Octavio Paz, and Haroldo de Campos, Paterson considers translation a form of interpretation. But while these authors regard a translation of a poem as a new original in the target language, Paterson insists on the distinction between translating and re–writing and argues that only "versions" can be considered "poems in their own right."4) In addition, while the tendency of scholarship in the last twenty years has been to move away from the discourse of fidelity,31) Paterson frequently resorts to images of faithfulness and betrayal. In "Fourteen Notes on the Version" he notes that "the only possible fidelity is to the entirely subjective quality of 'spirit' or 'vision,' rather than to literal meaning" (56).32) Curiously, in the re–writing of Dante's Inferno XIII, he inverts the terms and makes Sylvia Plath assert it a "far lesser crime" to be unfaithful to the spirit, rather than to betray the letter. Plath's spirit, as we will see, also talks about poetry as a "dark trade," the same words that Paterson uses in his T. S. Eliot lecture ("The Dark Art of Poetry"), in which he defines poetry as an art that takes the form of "the spell, the riddle, the curse, the blessing, the prayer" and whose function is "to change the way we perceive the world." From all these statements, we can [→page 146] infer that "The Forest of the Suicides" functions on two levels. The main narrative addresses an aesthetic and a moral concern: the relation between poetry and suffering, and the question of whether suicide is an acceptable act. A second strand revolves around the problem of fidelity: this concerns Plath's faithfulness to her "oath," but also the way in which this particular version by Paterson at once betrays and remains faithful to its source.

"The Forest of the Suicides": Dante's "detailed ground–plan and elevation"

The epigraph of "The Forest of the Suicides" warns us that, while the poem is a version of Dante's text, there will be an intrusion, a different poetic voice; it also helps us to recognize the suicide soul with whom Paterson replaces della Vigna in the forest.

Who are these pietàs?
The shadows of ringdoves chanting, but easing nothing.
(Sylvia Plath, "Winter Trees")

The Christian allusion "pietàs" foreshadows the emotional atmosphere of the passage from Dante, which is one of pity (pieta/pietade are recurrent words in Dante's canto). But "pietàs" also metonymically indicates the singers for the song, the poets for the poem, and thus anticipates the relationship between poetry and suffering, summarized by the "words and blood" that is a central image in both Paterson's and Dante's texts. The second line, with its interplay of ear and eye half–rhymes, exemplifies Plath's technical skill, her ability to weave the verbal texture that for Paterson constitutes the meaning of a poem: the fourfold repetition of the "ing" in "ring […]," "chanting," "easing," "nothing" echoes the dove's repeated call, while the "dows" in "shadows" is juxtaposed with the "doves" of "ringdoves." It is in the music, as well as the words, that the possibility is felt that song may not necessarily ease suffering.

[→page 147] Paterson adds "Inferno xiii" as a subtitle to "The Forest of the Suicides." However, by choosing not to present the original in a parallel version, he asserts that his poem—in line with his conception of the poetic version—is a "poem in its own right"; and by omitting the second section of the canto, which deals with the squanderers (those who are violent against their own goods), he signals from the outset that his poem is focused on a fragment. This choice allows him to reproduce specific formal and symbolic features of Dante's text while taking the liberty of deviating from its meaning.

If we use Paterson's simile and compare the making of a poem to the building of a house, we can say that he structures the poem by using Dante's "detailed ground–plan and elevation" ("Fourteen Notes on the Version" 84). At the very core of both passages from Dante and Paterson's texts is the witness borne by a great poet, in the company of his guide, another poet, to the suffering of a suicide soul who is also a writer. Paterson tells his story by attentively reproducing Dante's plot line, retaining the same images and transposing Dante's rhetorical devices. As in Dante's text, the pilgrim and his guide, who remain unnamed throughout the text, enter a dark wood with no path, see the monstrous harpies and hear strange moaning coming from the trees. The pilgrim consults his guide as to what these cries may be, and the guide instructs him to break off a twig from a thorn bush. When the pilgrim does so, he is surprised by a cry of reproach and sees dark blood issuing from the twig: words and blood are compared to the hissing drip at one end of a sapling log when set on fire at the other. Virgil apologizes, explains that the pilgrim could only be brought to believe the incredible phenomenon through direct experience, and, with the promise that the pilgrim will vindicate the soul by renewing its fame on earth, invites the thorn tree to tell its story. The injured plant recalls having committed suicide after having been abandoned by an "Emperor," a person to whom it was utterly devoted, and reaffirms its loyalty. At Virgil's request, it explains how, immediately after death, Minos hurls the souls of the suicides as seeds into the wood, where they sprout into wild plants continually attacked and torn by [→page 148] the harpies. At the last judgment, the souls will seek their bodies, with which they will never be reunited but which they will have to hang on their trees, because of the contempt that, in committing suicide, they showed for their bodies in life.

While faithfully reproducing Dante's plot, Paterson uses "local music for mortar" ("Fourteen Notes on the Version" 84), substituting Dante's stanzas in terza rima with four–line stanzas abab; these rhymes, as we will see, are a mixture of full and slant. He also eschews quantitative equivalence: Paterson's text is five stanzas longer than Dante's. Employing "local words for bricks," he uses modern English to render Dante's medieval Italian. For example, he translates "Harpy" with the Anglo–Saxon "Snatcher"5) and renders the mannered hesitancy with which the pilgrim guesses the thoughts of his guide "Cred' ïo ch'ei credette ch'io credesse" (Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.25) with the straightforward question: "Master, why do they hide from us? […] Are they afraid?" (Paterson, "The Forest of Suicide" 23–24). He also chooses to translate features that do not have equivalents, such as "particular images, etymological histories," with "something else that might have the same effect on the reader in the host tongue, which might be a very different thing" ("Interview with Atilla Dosa" 1). These substitutions entail important shifts of meaning.


Like the selva oscura at the beginning of the journey, the forest of canto xiii is dark and has no path. To describe it, Dante uses antithesis. In the first half of each line, he sketches the features of the locus amoenus, the delightful place that constitutes a topos of classical literature (see Curtius 192). In the second half, he conjures the very opposite:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti ma nodosi e 'nvolti,
non pomi v'eran, ma stecchi con tosco.
(Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.4–6)6)

[→page 149] Scholars have interpreted the underlying meaning of this stanza as a reference to the fact that souls who could have chosen good, for which they are destined, have instead chosen evil, which has twisted and poisoned them.7) Paterson makes no attempt at translating the stanza and introduces a strange simile unrelated to Dante's text:

Each barren, blood–back tree was like a plate
from a sailor's book of knots, its branches bent
and pleached and coiled as if to demonstrate
some novel and ingenious form of torment.
(Paterson, "The Forest of Suicide" 5–8)

By substituting plates from "a sailor's book of knots" for Dante's evocation of the wild, desolate stretch of land between Cecina and Corneto, Paterson replaces a reference that demands geographical knowledge of the source culture with an image that conveys a general sense of twistedness and torment. By not following Dante in describing the dark, gnarled, poisonous trees as the antithesis of those that are green, smooth, and covered with fruit, he omits any implicit premise that evil is not a positive force or presence but rather the absence of a loving God, thus also questioning the wood as a place where sinners receive the punishment they deserve.

As in Dante's text, the pilgrim follows Virgil's injunction to tear a twig from the tree, but, since the inhabitant of Paterson's poetic structure is Plath, not della Vigna, with striking variations:

Allor porsi la mano un poco avante
e colsi un ramicel da un gran pruno;
e 'l tronco suo gridò: 'Perchè mi schiante?'

Da che fatto fu poi di sangue bruno,
ricominciò a dir: 'Perchè mi scerpi?
non hai tu spirito di pietà alcuno?

Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi:
ben dovrebb'esser la tua man più pia
se state fossimo anime di serpi.'
(Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.31–39)8)

[→page 150]

[…] I snapped away
a twig from the bush that stood closer to me.

In the trunk, a red mouth opened like a cut.
Then a voice screamed out "Why are you tearing me?"
it was a woman's voice. Blood began to spurt
from the broken tip "you, are you hearing me?

When exactly did I earn your scorn?
Supposing I'd a heart black as a snake's,
I was a woman once, that now am thorn.
What would a little pity have set you back?"
(Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 27–36)

In Dante's text, the pilgrim picks a twig from a "gran pruno," with the gran according the plant–man a certain stature. In Paterson's version, we read "I snapped away / a twig from the bush that stood closest to me" (27–28, emphasis added). The simile in the next line, "In the trunk, a red mouth opened like a cut," leaves the reader in no doubt as to the connotation of "bush": it is a line deliberately phrased in order to startle, beginning as it does with "red mouth" and ending with the monosyllabic pun "cut" for "cunt." A pun is used again when, as "blood began to spurt / from the broken tip" (31–32), the voice cries out "I was a woman once, that now am thorn" (35)—with "thorn" echoing "torn."9) Unlike della Vigna, the hybrid plant–man, in whose vegetable body are trapped "the anguished workings of a human heart and mind" and whose contrappasso is to have all "connection between body and soul […] broken" (Spitzer 84–85), Plath's vegetable body retains a link with its human body. These changes give a sexual tone to the violence inflicted on the spirit, who experiences physical and psychological laceration by the two men who enter the wood.

In Dante's text, when Virgil apologizes and says that the offender can make amends by reviving the soul's fame in the upper world, the chancellor poet replies with exquisite courtesy in language filled with conceits.10) In Paterson's version, Virgil's apology and offer to the soul are almost literally translated. But the suicide spirit's angry, sarcastic response is very different: [→page 151]

E 'l tronco: 'Sì col dolce dir m'adeschi
ch' i' non posso tacere; e voi non gravi
perch' io un poco a ragionar m'inveschi.'
(Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.55–57)11)

And the tree laughed. "Bravo sir!" Well said.
You'd spend a life time trying to put it worse.
In my design, that scalded beach ahead
would be reserved for the biographers.

And if it's self–improvement your friend seeks
perhaps it's courtesy you need to teach…
Ah. But you can see that I am weak,
and lured into a little human speech.
(Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 49–56)

Paterson replaces della Vigna's mannered courtesy with sardonic, skeptical arrogance. Claiming "In my design, that scalded beach ahead / would be reserved for the biographers," the soul boldly places herself in the role of the omnipotent.12) Far from accepting her punishment, she implicitly accuses the pilgrim (who, in promising to tell her story, de facto becomes one of the biographers) of participating in the violence that is carried out against her. In her view, the pilgrim is not Dante's sensitive, enquiring seeker in quest of salvation but a curious, invasive person bent on "self–improvement" who needs to be taught some manners.

Plath's account of her life, the reasons for her suicide, and the message she would like to be conveyed to the world above follow della Vigna's plea of defence and also feature many of della Vigna's images. The right–hand man of the Emperor Frederick II, della Vigna committed suicide after having been (in Dante's rendition) unjustly accused of treason by those who were envious of his privileged role at the Emperor's court. Like della Vigna, Plath tells the story of how she was bound to an "office" (Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 63), disgraced by a "courtesan" (70) and abandoned by a "Caesar" (74). Paterson translates Dante's signifiers and gives priority to literal meaning. While Dante is speaking literally, Paterson uses the images metaphorically to refer to Plath's life. Readers familiar with Plath's poetry [→page 152] and biography, for example, will immediately recognize that "Caesar" is used as a metaphor to refer to the role of Plath's father. In translating Dante's tropes, Paterson keeps the literal image but modifies its allegorical sense (the "meritrice" is faithfully translated as "courtesan," but she stands for jealousy, rather than envy). He also expands Dante's images (there is not one, but two "Caesars") and therefore creates a longer monologue:

Io son colui che tenni ambo le chiavi
del cor di Federigo, e che le volsi,
serrando e disserrando, sì soavi,

che dal secreto suo quasi ogn'uom tolsi:
fede portai al glorïoso offizio,
tanto ch' i' ne perde' li sonni e' polsi.

La meretrice che mai dall'ospizio
di Cesare non torse li occhi putti,
morte comune, delle corti vizio,

infiammò contra me li animi tutti;
E li 'nfiammati infiammar sì Augusto,
che' lieti onor tornaro in tristi lutti.

L'animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,
ingiusto fece me contra me giusto.
(Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.58–73)13)

When I was small, I held both keys
that fitted my father's heart; which I unlocked
and locked again with such a delicate ease
he felt no turning, and he heard no click.

He desired no other confidence but mine;
nor would I permit one. I was so bound
to my splendid office that, when he resigned,
I followed. They had to dig me from the ground.

So the post remained, and I remained as true;
and, in time, I came to interview
for his successor. None of them would do
until a black shape cut the light in two

and at once I knew my ideal candidate.
But that green–eyed courtesan, that vice of courts
who had always stalked his halls and kept his gate—
the years had steeped me in her sullen arts

[→page 153] and my tongue grew hot with her abysmal need.
Slowly, I turned it on my second Caesar
until it seemed to me his every deed
did nothing but disgrace his predecessor.

So he left me too; but the tongue still burned away
till I sung the bright world only to estrange it,
and prophesied my end so nakedly
mere decency insisted I arrange it.

My mind, then, in its voice of reasoned harm
told me Death would broker my release
from every shame, and back into his arms;
so I made my date. It was bad advice.
(Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 57–84)

Equating della Vigna's emperor with Sylvia Plath's father, Paterson alludes to the strong hold that this man, who died when she was a child, had on her imagination. The trope is then extended to include the appointment of a "second Caesar"—a variation that addresses the frequent comparisons Plath, in her poetry and diaries, made between her father and husband, whom she considered her male poetic muses.14) Keeping the image of the flame, Paterson associates it with Plath's tongue, a synecdoche for angry words that Plath turned against Ted Hughes in poems such as "Event" and "Burning the Letters."15) Most importantly for what concerns the retelling of Plath's suicide, della Vigna's acknowledgement of having committed a sin against God's justice ("ingiusto fece me contra me giusto") is replaced by a neutral "It was bad advice."

There are innumerable biographies of Sylvia Plath on which Paterson could be drawing for the interpretation of the events that led Plath to suicide. Among them, the account of Alvarez in The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1972) appears particularly relevant.16) Alvarez's account is, in fact very similar to the one given by the soul in the monologue; in addition, his study includes a chapter on Dante's Canto XIII, [→page 154] thereby providing an antecedent for bringing together Plath's poetry and Dante's passage. In this text, Alvarez claims that Plath was drawn to suicide by a "quasi literary force" (31). This idea is echoed in Paterson's poem by the lines "and prophesied my end so nakedly / mere decency insisted I arrange it."17) The litotes in Paterson's poem "[i]t was bad advice," similarly echoes the interpretation (also in Alvarez's text) that Sylvia did not intend to commit suicide, that she took a risk, hoping that her attempt would call attention to her suffering, but that "her calculations went wrong" (Alvarez 32).18) If, in Dante's text, suicide is represented as a sin that by far surpasses the envy that has caused it, in Paterson's version it is a mistaken decision, a consequence of a chain of events and conflicting emotions.

In Dante's canto, della Vigna denies the charge of treason with simple, direct dignity and then asks the pilgrim to restore his reputation, which has been ruined by Envy. In Paterson's version, Plath admits to turning her fury and hatred on her "second Caesar" in such a way as to implicate the original ("it seemed to me his every deed / did nothing but disgrace his predecessor" Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 75–76). Her request for vindication has an oracular formulation:

Per le nove radici d'esto legno
vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
al mio signor, che fu d'onor sì degno.

E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,
conforti la memoria mia, che giace
ancor del colpo che 'nvidia le diede.
(Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.73–78)19)

But if your friend should somehow cut a path
back to the light, then tell them I betrayed
the spirit, not the letter of the oath—
by far the lesser crime in our dark trade.
(Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 85–88)

This reference to the letter and the spirit is found nowhere in Dante's Canto XIII. Paterson alludes to a passage of the New Testament in which Paul contrasts the life–giving "new testament" of Christ's spirit [→page 155] of love, "written not with ink, but […] in the fleshy tablets of the heart" with the commandments written "in tables of stone" (2 Cor 3:6). In this passage, the Christian spirit is associated with the interpretation of an ideal meaning, Jewish reading practices with loyalty to literalness. In Paterson's poem, the soul claims that she "betrayed the spirit not the letter of the oath," regarding it as "far the lesser crime" in a trade that she describes as dark.

As noted, in the T. S. Eliot lecture, Paterson defines poetry as a "dark art" and stresses its invocatory function, its closeness to the riddle and the prayer ("The Dark Art of Poetry"). But in the context of this version, the poetry of Virgil, Dante, and Plath is dark also insofar as it bears witness to suffering. Dante and Virgil wrote of the torments of an afterlife in the underworld, Plath, as non–believer, of the torments of life on earth, or, as she puts it in The Bell Jar, of hell as a place of intense earthly suffering.20) By writing out the anger and hatred which her Caesars, her male muses, have come to inspire, crafting words fashioned to endure, the suicide spirit has honored the letter of her oath even as, by reviling them, she has betrayed its spirit. Moreover, since she prophesied her death "so nakedly," in committing suicide, she has been literally faithful to the words she wrote. Ironically, her faithfulness to the letter can be summarized by Paul's statement that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Cor 3:6). Unlike della Vigna, Plath cannot claim complete fidelity to her oath. But she boldly claims kinship to her interlocutors, whom she recognizes as fellow writers renowned for descriptions of an underworld.

In the last part of his monologue, della Vigna delivers his account of the transformation of suicide souls when sent to the underworld in a straightforward way that contrasts his earlier mannerism. Plath gives the same basic account, but in a tone of pain and contempt, charging the speech with alliterations: "[…] furious soul […] tears itself from the flesh […]" (Paterson, "The Forest of Suicides" 105–06, emphasis added), "from the bed or bath or floor" (108, emphasis added) "where it spins down to this starless nursery / to seed wherever fortune tosses it" (110–11, emphasis added). If in her first response, addressing [→page 156] Virgil, she has reduced the pilgrim's mission to an inquiry into the suffering of others ("if it's self–improvement your friend seeks / Perhaps it's courtesy you need to teach" 53–54), she now refers to God's justice as an "inverse power." Finally, in the last stanza, which describes what will happen at the final clarion, the souls strangely will inhabit a "dark street" in a wood that in the first stanza is pathless, a line of bare, lifeless bodies hung like "white coat(s)" in the travesty of a celebration ("miserable parade"), forever separated from their souls imprisoned in thorn bushes.21)

All these variations shift the focus away from Christian eschatology and lead us back to the soul's enigmatic statement about the letter and the spirit. Paterson's poem is filled with references to imitations: the Snatcher is characterized by a "gift of mimicry," Plath's "second Caesar" is a version, a replacement, of his "predecessor." As noted, Plath's soul cannot claim authorial fidelity: the promise of being faithful to the letter and the spirit is an impossible one. In reproducing plot and imagery when re–writing Dante's passage, Paterson remains faithful to the original and prioritizes the letter. At the same time, as he reconceptualizes the canto from a framework of medieval faith to one of secular disbelief, he challenges the view that considered suicide "a mortal sin, a horror, the object of total moral revulsion" (Alvarez 125). In doing so, Paterson's poem ignores the idea of sin that is so central to Dante's vision.22) Paterson conjures up a Plath situated in the same circumstances as della Vigna, condemned for eternity for having committed suicide, but makes her protest at a design by an "inverse power" while at the same time affirming the reality (the truth) of her suffering.


In what way, then, can this poem still be considered to be a version, or, in other words and according to Paterson's own terminology, a re–writing faithful to the spirit of Dante's text? Fidelity to a source text can be traced beyond literal or metaphorical meaning, in the rendering [→page 157] of the intertextual weaving of Dante's poem. Most importantly, it can be identified in the surface of the language, in the way in which Paterson renders specific features of Dante's text, such as the interplay between acoustic and semantic elements.

In the first stanza, the pilgrim is "back" in a dark wood. On the one hand, the addition of the word "back" makes explicit what Dante is only suggesting—namely, the similarities between the suicides' forest and the selva oscura in which the journey begins. On the other hand, we are reminded that the poem is a re–writing of a different text. This intertextual reference is already characteristic of the original. As Sinclair pointed out, Virgil's apology to the wounded plant ("'S'elli avesse potuto creder prima […] anima lesa, / ciò c' ha veduto pur con la mia rima'"; Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.46–48) refers to an incident described in the Aeneid 3.3–65. (174). In this episode, Aeneas tears green shoots from a myrtle bush to decorate an altar, sees blood dripping from the roots and, terrified, hears a cry that reproaches him. He discovers that his cousin Polydorus has been murdered and buried underneath the mound, and he is overwhelmed by pity. Dante follows Virgil's plotline, but, in substituting della Vigna for Polydorus, he updates Virgil's references with allusions closer to his own time. He reproduces the transition from fear to pity and the affinity between the interlocutors (both della Vigna and Dante are men of letters). But he complicates the feeling of pity through the introduction of the theme of suicide, and by doing so also introduces the theme of doubt.23) Paterson echoes the complex texture of Dante by reproducing the sense of déjà vu. He changes the background from the Middle Ages to the present and, selecting a suicide soul who is also a poet, creates a kinship between the pilgrim and the injured soul (whom Virgil addresses as "sister"). He reduces the focus on pity, but elaborates and enlarges on doubt.

As we have seen, Paterson's substitution of Plath for della Vigna entails major differences. However, it also involves important parallels. Della Vigna was a famous rhetorician and a poet associated with the Sicilian school, a precursor of the Dolce Stil Novo. He took his own [→page 158] life in 1247—roughly fifty years before the time in which Dante sets the symbolic date for the Commedia. His story was well–known and, half a century later, Dante could still count on his readers to recognize him without explicitly naming him.24) In Dante's rendition, della Vigna's most prominent characteristic is his eloquence.33) Just as, in Canto XIII, della Vigna describes the suffering of hell, so in his own poetry he often dwelled on the feeling of loss and desperation.25) Scholars also stress the contradictions inherent in della Vigna's monologue: on the one hand, he demonstrates courtesy, loyalty, skilful rhetoric; all qualities that arouse the pilgrim's pity. On the other hand, he presents suicide as a direct consequence of others' envy of him, fails to acknowledge responsibility and, like all Dante's damned characters, is unrepentant (see Divine Comedy, trans. Musa 148).

If della Vigna belonged to an earlier generation than Dante, so does Plath in respect to Paterson: Plath took her own life in 1963, while Paterson is writing the poem in 2003, forty years after the event. Her life and works are sufficiently well known that Paterson can afford not to name her, and much ink has been spilt on the relationship between her last poems and her decision to take her own life.26) Like della Vigna, Plath, in Paterson's version, is presented as a torn, divided spirit who blames her "tongue" ("but the tongue still burned away" 76) and "mind" ("My mind, then, in its voice of reasoned harm / told me Death would broker my release" 81–82) for her actions and for the decision of taking her own life. Like him, she is unrepentant.27)

As a poet of the Sicilian school, della Vigna wrote in a style characterized by elaborate syntax, the frequent use of conceits, repetition, and wordplay. Scholars have stressed the pains that Dante takes to echo della Vigna's rhetoric not only in the tree's speech but also elsewhere in the canto, as if he was preparing readers for this encounter by appropriating his contrived style. In a similar manner, Paterson imitates Plath's voice not only in the monologue, but throughout the poem. A main feature of Plath's poetry, as exemplified in the epigraph, is her use of half–rhyme, of both ear and eye. In Paterson's poem, more than half of the sets of rhyme are half–rhymes. Just as [→page 159] della Vigna's mannered style pervades Dante's text, so half–rhymes pervade Paterson's. In a manner similar to Plath, Paterson alternates these half–rhymes with full rhymes to underscore contrasts and to suggest resolution. A study of his interweaving of rhyme and half–rhyme throughout the poem in a balanced but irregular pattern would warrant an essay in itself; consideration of a few instances will illustrate some of the effects he achieves.

In the very first stanza, the line "I was back in a dark wood, this time unmarked" expresses a sense of uneasiness and disorientation, described through a leading half–rhyme ("back" with "unmarked"). In the next stanza, two full rhymes, "plate" / "demonstrate," "bent" / "torment" convey instead a sense of certainty and nail the suffering that the image of the wood evokes. Plath's style is also echoed in the stanzas in which both sets of rhymes are half–rhymes. The first of these is the one where Plath's suicide spirit, like della Vigna, screams in protest when the pilgrim tears its branch (stanza 8). Here the punning "cut" is paired (logically) with spurt, while the eye–rhyme "tearing me" and "hearing me" (30–32) underlines the contrast that shows pilgrim and guide to be, paradoxically, both violent and attentive. In the last stanzas, the pairings of partial consonances such as "crop" with "escape" and of slant rhymes such as "ground" with "down," "pain" and "pains" contributes to a sense of fracture and dislocation. So while full rhymes are used when something assertive is being expressed, to convey a sense of certainty, the irregularity of half–rhymes and partial consonances conveys all that is unsettled, skewed, and fractured. This interweaving reflects the way in which Paterson, deploying a technical skill that echoes Plath's, captures her assuredness, the voice that she herself described as "fresh, brazen, colloquial" (Unabridged Journals 275), along with her sense of unease, displacement, fracture.

As if to underline Paterson's endeavour in echoing Plath's voice, the monologue of the suicide soul is filled with references to Plath's poems: "At once I knew my ideal candidate" echoes "I knew you at once" in "Love Letter," "a black shape cut the line in two" recalls [→page 160] Hughes's physical presence in Plath's "Man in Black"28); a ritual death that occurs every ten years haunts the background of "Lady Lazarus." In particular, Paterson's only all–rhyming stanza (stanza 17), in which Plath's spirit speaks of looking for a "successor" to her father, echoes the subject of the famous poem "Daddy" both semantically (in the conflation of a father figure and a husband) and acoustically, repeating the angry, accusing /u/ sound that prevails in the poem by constructing rhymes such as "true," "interview," "do," "two" (65–68).29)

Paradoxically, adopting Plath's voice also enables Paterson to be faithful to specific stylistic features of Dante's text. For example, if Paterson's description of the wood, in the second stanza, entails semantic deviation ("Each barren, blood–black tree was like a plate / from a sailor's book on knots, its branches bent / and pleached and coiled" 5–7) it also provides, in a manner similar to the source text, "a sort of linguistic, or onomatopoeic rendition of the ideas of torture, schism, estrangement which dominate the canto" (Spitzer 95). Therefore, while altering the meaning of the text, Paterson remains faithful to the original in deploying assonance and alliteration to reproduce the acoustic background of the wood.

Lastly, something remains to be said about the issue of pity in the two passages. Dante's pilgrim, in the course of his quest, seems sometimes to experience doubt about the decrees of divine justice because of the pity he feels for certain sinners: he faints with pity for Paolo and Francesca, admires Farinata. In Canto XIII, the pilgrim is particularly moved by the suffering of the suicides. In The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, Alvarez reflects that Dante must have "at least understood something of their [the suicides'] anguish, and had probably shared it in its own time" (128). Dante depicts della Vigna as a an honorable and loyal man. The pilgrim is overwhelmed by pity and mortified at having hurt a fellow soul, a statesman, an orator, and a poet. On the other hand, by placing della Vigna in Hell, Dante emphasizes the gravity of his sin. "So Dante is at once clearing Pier's reputation and, at the same time, damning him to an eternity of pain," writes Alvarez. [→page 161] "It is an oddly ambivalent performance, as though the artist and the Christian were pulling in opposite directions" (128).

As in Dante's text, in Paterson's version author and pilgrim display contrasting attitudes, only that here the terms are inverted. As author, Paterson shares Plath's regard for craftsmanship and attention to consonance of sounds and meaning; in his very neutral reading of the poem, he emphasizes the "our" in "our dark trade." But while Dante's pilgrim is overwhelmed by pity to the point that he loses the ability to speak ("tanta pietà m'accora"; Divine Comedy, trans. Sinclair; Inferno XIII.84), Paterson's pilgrim, sickened, has "no stomach" ("Forest of the Suicides" 94) for the conversation with a suicide soul that comes across as jealous, angry and vindictive.


A reading of "The Forest of the Suicides" that takes into account Paterson's concern with fidelity has shown that the poem is faithful to its source in repeating Canto XIII's engagement with other texts, in replacing della Vigna's characteristic rhetoric with Plath's distinctive use of half–rhymes, and in reproducing the contrasting attitudes of author and pilgrim. Transposing Dante's carefully wrought play of sound into English, the version reproduces Dante's narrative flow by channelling Plath's poetic voice, its individual timbre and style.

At this point, we can ask ourselves what kind of readership Paterson addresses with this poem. In "Fourteen Notes on the Version" Paterson emphasizes how, in another collection of poetic versions (Orpheus), he deliberately added new titles and avoided parallel texts to prevent the reader from the temptation of comparison: "Travesty, alas, is in the eyes of the beholder, and the more familiar readers are with the original, the greater the likelihood that travesty will be their diagnosis" (78). Similarly "The Forest of the Suicides" is not accompanied by Dante's text nor by an introduction. This format encourages the reader to consider the poem as an independent, autonomous work.30) If, according to Paterson's definition, the poetic version can be [→page 162] considered a means to allow "a poet to disown their own voice and try on another" (The Eyes, Afterword 78), by re–writing Dante while adopting Plath's voice, Paterson confirms the role of the poet–translator as a master of forgery who may "legislate against travesty" (78) but is skilled in camouflage and disguise. Moreover, we could say that, by appropriating Plath's voice and placing it in an allegorical context, Paterson not only challenges Dante's spiritual vision, but also the view of scholars that considers Plath's poetry a direct witness, a direct outpouring of her personal experiences. In tune with Paterson's conception of the poetic version, the "Forest of the Suicides" can be read as an "open ended inquiry" that goes as far as challenging the idea that a poet has an autonomous voice at all beyond the adoption of a poetic persona ("Interview with Marco Fazzini;" 8). The only unquestionable voice, as Paterson reminds us, is that of the poem.

University of British Columbia

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