Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.
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 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.

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Dante, Paradiso

Paradiso (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume III)Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is what you’ve heard about the Divine Comedy: the Inferno, with its poignantly vivid tortures and its cacophony of wicked voices, is the most entertaining canticle, beloved of various and sundry; the Purgatorio, with its wistful focus on the lives and ambitions of poets and its chastened mundanity, is of special interest to writers and artists; and the Paradiso, with its saints in chorus, its mystical refusals of imagery, and its long disquisitions on Scholastic philosophy, can be appreciated exclusively by the faithful, and even they might nod off.

Being a contrarian by nature and a producer of “fresh content” by mission, I am supposed to tell you that everything you know is wrong. I will, eventually, but for now let’s give the devil his due: Dante’s Beatrice-guided tour of Paradise is depressingly devoid of drama. At one point when Dante seems to feel fear, Beatrice rebukes him and reminds him that nothing bad can happen in Heaven.

What can happen in Heaven? Dante can have the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Beatrice and a host of sometimes literal luminaries (St. Thomas Aquinas, the emperor Justinian, Charles Martel, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and more) explain to Dante the nature and purpose of God’s creation, from the dark spots on the moon to questions of salvation. Dante doesn’t even have to ask, because everyone in Paradise can read his mind. The Paradiso, therefore, very often reads like a beautiful digest of medieval thought rather than much of a narrative or drama—interesting on historical grounds, but a good deal less exciting than even Dante’s earlier rivals in epic poetry, Homer or Virgil.

As for Beatrice, I admire Dante’s Troubadour audacity in elevating his school crush to a level of holy authority just below the Blessed Mother, but Bea must be second only to Milton’s God in the annals of Christian poets’ divine disappointments. Unlike the solicitous and even maternal Virgil of the previous canticles, Beatrice lords it over Dante like a stern schoolmistress or martinette. She rarely—at least in translation—speaks a word in tenderness or spontaneity; comparing herself to Jupiter when he accidentally annihilated his mistress, she notes, “‘Were I to smile, then you would be / like Semele when she was turned to ashes'” (note the gender swap—Dante=Semele, Beatrice=Jupiter—more of which below). She sometimes seems like a machine programmed with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas—as, to be fair, do the rest of the saints in Heaven. At times in reading the Paradiso, the incorrigible post-Christian reader feels a nostalgia for the agitations of hell.

For the purposes of this piece, I am going to omit discussion of the Paradiso‘s philosophical particulars—if you would like to know why there are hierarchies among the angels or whether or not there are degrees of divine dessert among unbaptized infants, the answers are there in the poem, even if I have not managed to hold them all in my mind or understand all their logics (“‘he who hears, / but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing,” chides Beatrice—o mea culpa, bella donna!). Instead I will seek elements of literary (as opposed to philosophical) and human (as opposed to divine) interest.

Dante begins the poem with a petition to Apollo, lord of light and of boundaries. This is in fact a poem of light as it narrates Dante’s increasing powers of sight as he approaches the divine:

From this you see that blessedness depends
upon the act of vision, not upon
the act of love—which is a consequence…

It is also, like the trilogy of which it forms the final part, a poem of boundaries: Paradise, like Hell and Purgatory, is carefully ranked according to the merit of each of its constituent elements. God does not permeate the universe equally, and where His light shines lowest, matter is freest to take its errant course, hence the presence of those who have failed in some way even in the lowest layers of the heavens.

While Dante refers early in the Paradiso to “the mighty sea of being,” his Apollonian imagination inclines to nothing so chaotic as the ocean. (The aforementioned Semele, by the way, was pregnant with Dionysus—Apollo’s archetypal opposite—when she was incinerated by Jove.) When sea imagery recurs, Dante deploys it to make sure we as readers are kept in our place as possibly unworthy subordinates in his poetic armada:

O you who are within your little bark.
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take have never been sailed before…

Despite this adventuresome rhetoric, and despite a climactic comparison of himself to Jason, Dante’s poetic project is less an uncharted voyage than the charting of everything. Recall that Ulysses, reimagined as an irrepressible explorer, was damned. When Dante reaches the sphere of the Primum Mobile at the height of Heaven, he looks down at earth for the second time in his ascension. The first time, he noted that, from his height, the earth appeared “scrawny.” Now he overlooks the distant Mediterranean, as if to put Ulysses the secular quester in his place at last, far below the spiritual pilgrim:

I saw that, from the time when I looked down
before, I had traversed all of the arc
of the first clime, from its midpoint to end,

so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’
mad course and, to the east, could almost see
that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.

Why does Dante disparage the earth, which he twice calls a “threshing floor,” the unglamorous site where godly wheat is separated from infernal chaff? As Beatrice explains, implying more than perhaps she means, the fault is time, the medium through which the errant will moves and matter decays:

“The will has a good blossoming in men;
but then the never-ending downpours turn
the sound plums into rotten, empty skins.

For innocence and trust are to be found
only in little children; then they flee
even before a full beard cloaks the cheeks.”

The Paradiso is a politically as well as religiously didactic poem. Dante does envision a political solution to the corruptions of earth. Beatrice continues: “‘on earth no king holds sway; / therefore, the family of humans strays.'” Dante deplored the political conditions obtaining in Europe around the turn of the fourteenth century. He believed that the church had corrupted into a worldly and temporal power, even as the rightful temporal power—the secular emperors—were weak. Division is again the solution: let the church tend the spirit and the state discipline the body. Charles Martel complains to Dante:

“But you twist to religion one whose birth
made him more fit to gird a sword, and make
a king of one more fit for sermoning…”

These political issues are not abstractions to Dante. His own city has fallen into moral ruin, and he himself has been exiled from it. In Paradise he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who gives a lyric portrait of Florence’s golden age, and, in some of this canticle’s best-known lines, prophesies Dante’s banishment:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.”

Upon reaching the court of Heaven, where the highest saints and the angels are arrayed as the white rose of Paradise around the blinding Borgesian aleph that is God, Dante, despite his conviction that the temporal and spiritual powers must be kept apart, cannot help but see the sight as a barbarian’s first glimpse of the finest political order, the Roman Empire itself:

If the Barbarians, when they came from
a region that is covered every day
by Helice, who wheels with her loved son,

were, seeing Rome and her vast works, struck dumb
(when, of all mortal things, the Lateran
was the most eminent), then what amazement

must have filled me when I to the divine
came from the human, to eternity
from time, and to a people just and sane

from Florence came!

His final guide, the mystic St. Bernard, introduces the personae of Paradise as “great patricians / of this most just and merciful empire.” Spiritual and secular authority, which Dante had taken pains to separate, here collapse back into each other so that Paradise is an ideally ordered empire. Dante seems to be at the verge of the post-Christian world, very nearly imagining, like Hegel or Marx, that God might be nothing other than the imagination’s projection of good governance onto the heavens.

Though Dante was thus (to use an anachronistic term) a totalitarian, he was no phallocrat. Writing in the mariolatrous Middle Age—St. Bernard, reports one of Allen Mandelbaum’s endnotes, did much to revive the cult of Mary—and nearly deifying his first love, Dante places an ideal image of woman at the center of his vision and pictures Paradise as centered upon a rose, not a phallic but a vulvic image. No wonder the Apollonian male poet allows himself to be figured by his beloved as Semele, mother of Dionysus.

These initially puzzling slippages of our poet’s ordered intelligence, which seems to confuse sacred/secular and male/female when it had been so concerned throughout the poem to separate their spheres, are explained when Dante finally does behold God, or the Eternal Light:

In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

By conceiving his self, his book, and his universe as a unity, Dante accomplishes the transfiguration of epic into lyric that will become the mark of modern poetry from Wordsworth to Whitman to Walcott. But if epic is imperial, lyric is personal, the staging of a psyche in motion, as when Dante, just before mounting up to God, records his struggle to recall and write his vision:

As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

I have never read a better analogy for the attempt to write poetry or fiction than that of trying to remember a dream whose emotional impression colors the whole day even after its events have evanesced from the mind. In the endnotes to Mandelbaum’s translations, the editors comments on this passage:

Dante, the poet attempting to record his vision, is like a man awakening from a dream he does not remember, filled with the emotion of a dream, but with no clear recollection of its particulars. We are reminded of Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan,” where the poem itself is presented as the recollection of a dream. Reading this last canto, it is easy to see how the Romantic poets were attracted by Dante. The stupendous tension of the remainder of the poem derives in large part from Dante’s dramatization of his present struggle to recollect (i.e., imagine) and describe (i.e., create in words) the content of his final vision.

Earlier in the poem, Beatrice explains to Dante that God—whom we know from his sculptures in Purgatory to be an artist—created the universe for the same reason that any artist creates, not for company and certainly not for gain but merely to affirm that what exists exists:

“Not to acquire new goodness for Himself—
which cannot be—but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare ‘Subsisto,’

in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.”

Not just a static affirmation then, but one in motion. God seeks “new loves”—should this not be foreclosed by Beatrice’s logic when she claims God seeks no “new goodness”?—and so blossoms as the rose does. Again, we suspect that Dante can’t do it: he cannot separate divinity from nature, nature from art, though Aristotle or Aquinas tell him he must. God is a rose is an artist.

Dante’s final vision is of the Trinity, specifically of its second person; he beholds a man inscribed into a circle, our effigy fused with divinity in the Incarnation. At the center of the universe and the middle of the rose, he finds the figure of the human. So in his archaic, forbidding poem, we might find ourselves, “more truly and more strange.”

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Dante, Purgatorio

Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy, #2)Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allen Mandelbaum begins his introduction to his wonderful translation thusly:

 

For the Virgil of Dante’s Purgatorio, “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII, 104-105). To find one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.The descent through Hell and ascent through the seven terraces of the Mount of Purgatory are the tale of that education of Dante’s hungering, longing, thirsting will.

The Purgatorio is the most human canticle of the Divine Comedy, many commentators say, since it alone takes place on earth—specifically on the mountain of Purgatory, which rises to the heavens at the opposite pole from Jerusalem in medieval cartography, and which was the last sight that greeted the living Ulysses on his doomed quest for knowledge in the Inferno. In line with this latter parable, Virgil cautions Dante against relying on reason, rather than seeing with the eye of faith, as they traverse the terraced mount:

“Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.

Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.”

The Purgatorio‘s spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem more “realistic,” in the sense of representing human norms, than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of we’re all fellow sufferers and pilgrims here similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a plane. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, Statius on the birth of souls, and more. The long-awaited and climactic appearance, in the Earthly Paradise, of a Beatrice full of maternal anger amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that commentators must sometimes admit ignorance is a memorable moment, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante makes me wonder—and Mandelbaum does not clear this up, nor to my recollection does Dorothy L. Sayers in her translation/commentary—from whence Dante derives her spiritual authority, which he likens to that of Christ; he has boldly added a major figure to the Christian pantheon, drawn from his daily life.

The pageant in the Earthly Paradise that concludes the canticle is spectacular in its bravura imagery and that imagery’s encoded representation of Christian history. To my mind, however, it also shows the limits of the allegorical method, since the vehicles of its metaphors are simply fantastical, with none of the earthiness of Dante’s human figures: women dancing who are green, red, and white, thus representing certain virtues, for instance, or a chariot emblematizing the church drawn by a griffin standing for Christ. I’m sure I just lack the proper taste and knowledge to appreciate medieval art, but these passages (cantos XXVII-XXXIII) with their imagery mostly untethered from human reality struck me as a poetic anticipation of CGI. Similarly, the poem’s long explanations of how shades can feel pain or how there can be wind in the Earthly Paradise feel to my post-Romantic sensibility, its faith in open-ended symbolism, like an overindulged “world-building” impulse. What can I say? Dante is a genius, no doubt, but Joyce once hesitated between Shakespeare or Dante for his desert island book before finally deciding on “the Englishman”—whereas I would not hesitate at all.

On a happier note, before the parade in the Earthly Paradise begins, the Purgatorio is a poet’s canticle, full of artists and striking disquisitions on art. God, for one thing, is Himself an artist: He has carved imposing reliefs modeling humility and chastened pride into the mountain walls, representations so real that “even Nature, there, would feel defeated,” as they trick Dante into thinking he hears the songs and smells the smoke he only sees. Dante compares himself to a child and Virgil to his mother, and the heaven-bound poet Statius, paying tribute to Virgil, calls the Aeneid his nurse and mother: poets honor their precursors in what Dante would boggle to hear me call a queer genealogy. (Would he be less comprehending at another modern critical tradition’s calling it a patriarchal one? Dante curses Eve for getting us evicted from Eden, and he dreams an alluring Siren—”that ancient witch,” Virgil calls her—whose “belly” exudes a “stench”; to these wicked women Mary and Beatrice stand as antitypes, so that the moral cosmos is organized around poles of abstracted femininity.) The Troubadours, Dante’s predecessors in the beautiful new style of love poetry, are hailed in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out of the lust-purging fire:

“I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!”

The poets do allow, though, that the fame of art is fleeting:

“Your glory wears the color of the grass
that comes and goes; the sun that makes it wither
first drew it from the ground, still green and tender.”

Again, the poem’s theme is “the education of desire.” Virgil explains that human love and desire are, when misdirected by the bad exercise of free will, the sources of sin, even as they may the source of virtue; in a similar psychological monism, Dante refutes Plato (and his inverted latter-day disciple Freud) in denying that there can be any division in the soul. This theme is enacted by the poem’s structure: Dante allows us to understand that his strict narrative structure and verse form impose the discipline on art that will allow it to serve the end of virtue. Virgil advises Dante to use his will to choose between good and evil, to recognize the “keeper of the threshold / of your assent”—and perhaps that is the role played in art by form:

[B]ut since all of the pages predisposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.

Even so, Virgil, representing the apogee of poetry as well as the limits of secular perception, is left behind at the threshold of paradise. His last words to Dante:

“Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

Nevertheless, Dante has three prophetic dreams and an ecstatic vision, whose sights he refers to as his “not false errors”; he is likewise told in the Earthly Paradise that the pagan poets’ vision of the Golden Age intuited Eden:

“Those ancients who in poetry presented
the golden age, who sang its happy state,
perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place.”

Our poet can’t help himself: even the phantasmagoria of the visionary, even the verses of the unchristened, tell the truth: art is real, beauty will save the world. Hence, despite every misgiving, Beatrice’s instruction: “‘when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen.'”

Weighing in on the perennial question of how to separate the great art from the sinning artist, Dante allows that he will almost certainly have to spend time on the Mount of Purgatory to purge the very pride without which he certainly never would have embarked on such an audacious epic (“already / I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”). When among the prideful, as they learn humility by being bent like crushed caryatids under heavy stones, Dante’s own pity enjoins him to bend with them even though Virgil counsels him to “stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake” and he himself says elsewhere that “erect” is “the stance most suitable to man.” For the curbed Christian, it sometimes seems, the energy of desire might at any moment be aimed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help but admire Ulysses in the Inferno, and I was sad to see Virgil go here, especially as he is replaced by a Beatrice whose severe reproofs leave Dante in tears. “[W]e are worms,” Dante says, waiting to attain our final form, on butterfly wings in Paradise. But I prefer the early cantos, their simplicity and starkness:

Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour,
which fled before it; in the distance I
could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
like one returning to a lost pathway,
who, till he finds it, seems to move in vain.

On Dante’s earth, language becomes the body, the face, rather than accommodating fantastical beasts in forests rustled by the wind from heaven: in the visages of the starved gluttons of Purgatory, Dante perceives the word “man,” or “omo,” formed by the flesh-purged lines of brow and nose. One sees “man,” too, in Belacqua, made sluggish by sloth, his tragicomic posture often all we can manage on earth:

And one of them, who seemed to me exhausted,
was sitting with his arms around his knees;
between his knees, he kept his head bent down.

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Dante, Inferno

Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1)Inferno by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know the story: a man in the middle of life is lost in a shadowy forest of ignorance and error, his path to wisdom blocked by impassable beasts. Then he is saved by the shade of the great poet, Virgil, sent to rescue the wanderer by his dead and heavenly beloved, Beatrice. Salvation comes in the form of a journey through the Christian afterworld: a descent down the funnel of hell, a climb up the mount of purgatory, and a sojourn in paradise. Our hero, like many an epic hero before him, will quest through strange realms, even as our poet-philosopher—the hero’s own later self, recollecting the odyssey in rhyme—discloses its significance for humankind. This tripartite poem is threefold in genre: it combines epic, autobiography, and philosophy in one. Such a yoking of incommensurates marks the achievement of Dante. What ambitious imaginative writer that follows has not wished to fuse personal life and local politics with the wisdom and personae of eternity, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice”?

To ascend, you must first descend, as Odysseus and Aeneas and Freud and Jung understood. Virgil leads Dante down what Lawrence, referring to Orpheus rather than Dante, will later call “the strange lanes of hell.” Their strangeness is what should be emphasized for the contemporary reader. Dante must be the most off-putting canonical poet, his vision almost totally encrusted in allegorical interpretation: you feel like you must halt at every line of verse and ask, “What does X stand for, what does Y stand for?” And maybe—my native contrarianism makes me question the post-structuralist chaos theory of textuality—this is the ultimate or final form of reading imaginative literature, the point just before reading itself ceases because truth has been realized. But first you just have to read: the text before the commentary.

Reading the Inferno, what stands out is the inventiveness, the prodigality of imagination. Dante was hoping it would. Poetry and philosophy may rest in the end a little lower than wisdom, but we poets and philosophers sometimes feel we can stand in their fainter light forever. Hence in Limbo, at the threshold of Hell, Dante joins the great shades of antiquity—Homer and Socrates, Aristotle and Ovid—in the odd university town that is their ambiguous immortality. Neither saved nor quite punished, they are able to control themselves by force of reason but unable to redeem themselves through faith: “we have no hope and yet we live in longing,” says Virgil of his own sphere, speaking for all of us who have not been able to unite reality and justice.

But I write on Halloween morning—though the poem takes place on Easter weekend—so let me proceed to the horrors:

And—there!—a serpent sprang with force at one
who stood upon our shore, transfixing him
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot.

No o or i has ever been transcribed
so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
and, as he fell, quickly turned to ashes;

and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
the dust of him collected by itself
and instantly returned to what it was…

Dante’s horrors are uncanny in the Freudian sense of the displaced familiar; his Hell is our world, distorted. His use of epic simile, which compares the epic poet’s marvelous narrative with homely or natural places and events to make the poetic material seem more plausible, begins to work in reverse, so that the everyday comes to be seen by hellfire, just as the modern novelist, reversing the epic poet’s procedure, likens homely or domestic affairs to the strange and outlandish:

The demons did the same as any cook
who has his urchins force the meat with hooks
deep down into the pot, that it not float.

Hell, as I said, is a strange place. Writing before the Last Judgment, when the dead will rise from their tombs and rejoin their souls, Dante necessarily makes Hell a simulacrum of what will later hold full reality. Again and again, it is Dante alone whose feet dislodge stones or whose weight bears upon boats and the backs of demons. At the end of the Inferno, he even encounters the soul of a sinner who has not yet died on earth (“as soon as any soul becomes a traitor, / as I was, then a demon takes its body / away”).

The genius of Dante, then, is to organize vivid images of spiritual states: the place in the organization of Hell you occupy is a kind of metaphor for what your soul in its sinful state already looks like. The imagery of Hell is the true picture of reality that is under what we take for the normal world. If you are politically or religiously sectarian, then you are already, right now, a walking catalogue of mutilation, part cleaved from part; if you are a seller of spiritual goods, you are already, right now, upside down in a hole, having elevated the base over the holy; if you are sexually incontinent, you are already, right now, fused to another and buffeted by violent passion. One sinner, who “carried by the hair its severed head…like a lantern,” even announces God’s method to Dante, who merely copies it in his art:

Because I severed those so joined, I carry—
alas—my brain dissevered from its source,
which is my trunk. And thus, in me,

one sees the law of counter-penalty.

But it is not just that we get what we deserve; it is that sin is its own penalty. Dante invents endless haunting horrors to shock us out of sin, from rains of fire to fields of shit to vats of pitch to lakes of ice. As the two poets descend down the spiral that leads to the bottom of the universe, Virgil counsels Dante not to pity the sufferers. Is their suffering not just? Has God not ordained it? The drama of the Inferno is Dante’s growing confidence in his own judgment. He swoons with pity when he hears the story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, but by Canto XXXII he is grabbing heads frozen in ice by the scruff to enjoin them to speak. What, by the way, do the souls of sinners want from Dante? On learning he is a poet, they all want him to write of them on earth, to bring their names and stories back into circulation. This is a backhanded tribute to poetry: it is the only secular way to a relative immortality, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of eternity if even the damned can be satisfied by it? Virgil, while condemning usury as perverse replication of wealth without labor, argues that art must follow nature, which is the artistry of God:

“Philosophy, for one who understands ,
points out, and not just in one place,” he said,
how nature follows—as she takes her course—

the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;
and if you read your Physics carefully,
not many pages from the start, you’ll see

that when it can, your art would follow nature,
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild.”

Yet the God of the Inferno is an artificer of perversity; he must be, in giving the perverse their just desserts. I am not quite about to launch into an argument that Dante was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Even so, compassion accompanies clarity throughout the Inferno, if only for humanity as such and the distortions we are prey to, as when Dante sees the soothsaysers and magi with their heads twisted around in punishment for trying to see too far ahead and by ungodly means:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Perhaps the force of palsy has so fully
distorted some, but that I’ve yet to see,
and I do not believe that that can be.

May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
from what you read; and now think for yourself
how I could ever keep my own face dry

when I beheld our image so nearby
and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.

Dante and the reader, though, feel undeniable esteem for certain of the damned. The sodomite Brunetto Latini in Canto XV, whom Dante sees as a mentor, for instance:

And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser.

There is Dante’s Ulysses, who speaks of his restless voyaging beyond the pillars of Hercules from the flame where he is entombed, and who narrates his rousing speeches and his own death with tragic dignity:

“‘Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’

[…]

…for out of that new land a whirlwind rose
and hammered at our ship, against her bow.

Three times it turned her round with all the waters;
and at the fourth, it lifted up the stern
so that our prow plunged deep, as it pleased an Other,

until the sea again closed—over us.”

A theological objection does occur to the reader: if a soul like Ulysses can be so articulate and knowing about his situation, then how can grace be withheld him—or, to put it another way, if the soul remains intelligent after death, how might it not be saved? This is just another way of tormenting the nuns in religion class with the old question about God: if God is all good and all powerful, why must anyone be damned or anyone suffer? Why has a benevolent God arranged a universe with so much evil and suffering? (“We made him do it,” goes the answer; “But he made us,” goes the reply; and so on and so forth, from Genesis to Blade Runner.)

Like all reasonable ancients and moderns, but perhaps not medievals (to use an overly simplistic historical narrative), I accept that the universe is so horrifically arranged while discarding the possibility that a universally benevolent power has so arranged it. Insofar as Dante remains a poet, he does no less, and this is shown in his insistence that eternity is a kind of Florence writ large, only our own world, but seen through the eye of God.

One of the glories and sorrows of the Inferno is the amount of space taken up by Florentine politics in Dante’s time. This necessitates frequent recourse to endnotes and glosses, and, unless one is a historian, the politics never quite come clear. I grasp that Dante belonged to the leftmost wing of the republican party that initially supported the papacy against the empire, and that after he was permanently exiled by a rival faction he developed a political philosophy emphasizing a division between spiritual and worldly power. (The corruption of spiritual authority is particularly important in the Inferno, as Dante denounces church corruption and even traces it to the Donation of Constantine, which is to say the founding of the church as a secular power.) I see too how this desire to neatly arrange different types of perfection and happiness belongs to the same poetic imagination that fuses thought and image into complex but intelligible philosophical arrays.

But all the Florentine personalities tend to blur every time I read this poem, and I sometimes question the wisdom of this literary strategy; for myself, I would not ask readers almost a millennium hence to recognizes the names of, for instance, Paul Manafort and John Podesta (to choose only Italian names from the present American political inferno). Even so, I am stunned by Dante’s boldness in putting his contemporaries right next to the personae of religion and mythology and retaining a level and authoritative tone while doing so: Paul Manafort and Ulysses, John Podesta and the Titans of Olympus (I use the aforementioned contemporary American figures because I cannot just now recall the names of any Ghibellines), all occupying the same metaphysical plane.

The Inferno is a worldly city. It is, perhaps, the city we all live in on earth, and in the tones in which so many sinners speak we hear our own voices, complaining about politics and recounting our despair, chastened by the absurdity of it all and the necessity of enduring it:

My home was in the city whose first patron [Mars]
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,

he’ll always use its art to make it sorrow;
and if—along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,

those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.

I made—of my own house—my gallows place.

Postmodern psychology is the opposite of Dante’s: do we not invert his hierarchies, honoring impulse and desire over the reason that was, we hear, discredited by its bringing of inferno rather than paradise to those it colonized, enslaved, and immolated? If God does not exist and Auschwitz is the other name of reason, then it is not even any dishonor for us to acknowledge that we live in the infernal city. We have learned, perversely perhaps—but do you have any better ideas?—to enjoy the agonies our offenses bring us, to admire our own woundedness. Of Dante, we ask only vividness and discard the wisdom.

A final note on this translation. Allen Mandelbaum, working toward the end of the twentieth century (this translation dates from 1981) and working in rhyme-poor English, knew he could not replicate Dante’s terza rima while translating clearly and faithfully; but free verse would be a poor substitute for the poet’s sonically intricate yet clear and rapid Italian. Mandelbaum’s solution is superb: he chooses “close sonic packing,” he says in his introduction, “with pure rhymes, pararhyme, assonances, alliterations, and consonances often called into service.” (I tried something like this myself when trying to see the greatness in Mallarmé through a poor translation.) English is suited to such a technique: alliteration, not end-rhyme, was the major sound technique of the earliest English poets, and alliteration, assonance, and consonance serve perhaps more naturally than rhyme as sonic unifiers in English poetry. This means that while Mandelbaum’s poem does not rhyme quite as Dante’s does, it chimes throughout. In this way, it proclaims even in English, when read aloud, the unity of God’s creation as not only described but also verbally enacted by the poet.

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Derek Walcott, Omeros

OmerosOmeros by Derek Walcott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing like the literal—rather than the theoretical—death of the author to inspire one to read his masterpiece. As I wondered about Hart Crane, whom Walcott loved, what does it mean to read a poem, as opposed to a story or novel? What does it mean to read this poem, of 325 pages and some 8,500 lines, some of which is as narratively clear as Hemingway—or Homer—but which is at other times as dense and cryptically visionary as a Crane lyric? A few pages from the end of this self-consciously epic and anti-epic Caribbean poem of 1990, the poet laments, “So much left unspoken / by my chirping nib!” So it will be here with my clacking keyboard—I would have to read Omeros five or ten more times to do it any justice, but I present below some insights gleaned and impressions derived from a first perusal.

Omeros refers, of course, to Homer: “‘That’s what we call him in Greek,'” says the poet’s lover early on in the narrative, stroking a bust of the blind bard that will, at the poem’s climax, wash ashore on St. Lucia and lead said poet through a humbling visionary tour of his nation’s hells and purgatories and paradises. The traditional epic invocations to the precursors are clear not only in Walcott’s story but in his form: he composes tercets (his tribute to Dante) in hexameters (his tribute to Homer); his meter is generally (albeit variably) iambic, in deference to traditional English heroic measure, while his rhyme scheme is as intricate yet free as that of those modernist poets who learned from jazz, whether mandarin Eliot or man-of-the-people Hughes.

Walcott himself is far more the mandarin, which complicates an otherwise moving belief in his people; this tension provides Omeros its lyric drama—lyric poetry is made, as Yeats said, from the argument with ourselves—while its “epic” conflicts—of Greek-named fishermen Achille and Hector quarreling Trojan-War-wise over a woman named Helen—can sometimes feel a bit forced and merely notional, at least until Walcott enters his personae’s heads enough to generate lyric out of their own consciousness.

The poem’s first half is devoted to its working-class St. Lucian characters: not only Achille, Hector, and Helen, but also Ma Kilman, who runs a rum shop; a blind man named Seven Seas; and Philoctete, whose leg—wounded by ship’s debris in the ocean—signifies the wound of the island itself or perhaps of the black diaspora at large left by the legacy of slavery and imperialism. The other characters on the island are an old white couple, the World-War-II-wounded Englishman Major Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud; Plunkett is writing a history of the island, as Walcott is writing its poem, both texts organized around each man’s erotic obsession with Helen.

Midway through the poem, Achille, suffering sunstroke, has a visionary experience of a return to Africa, an encounter with his ancestors, and an experience of slavery. While his eventual recovery and return to shore with an albacore under his heel signify the potential to triumph over history, the poem switches to a long, forlorn first-person narrative of Walcott’s own wandering through the U.S. and Europe. Unlucky in love and oppressed by the violence that the west has done to peoples from the Native Americans to the Irish, the West Africans to the Indians, he broods on the identity, famously proclaimed by Walter Benjamin, of culture and barbarism:

The honeyed twilight cupped in long, shadowed squares,
the dripping dungeons, the idiot dukes, were all
redeemed by the creamy strokes of a Veláquez,

like the scraping cellos in concentration camps,
with art next door to the ovens, the fluting veil
of smoke soaring with Schubert? The cracked glass of Duchamp’s

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, did Dada
foresee the future of Celan and Max Jacob
as part of the cosmic midden? What my father

spiritedly spoke of was that other Europe
of mausoleum museums, the barber’s shelf
of The World’s Great Classics, with a vanity whose

spires and bells punctually pardoned itself
in the absolution of fountains and statues,
in writhing, astonishing tritons; their cold noise

brimming the basin’s rim, repeating that power
and art were the same, from some Ceasar’s eaten nose
to spires at sunset in the swift’s half-hour.

Tell that to a slave from the outer regions
of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work
of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.

But just as Homer, who might have been expected to side with Greek over Trojan, displayed sympathy to both sides, Walcott—with more painful postmodern self-consciousness—not only extends his sympathy to Plunkett, a man with whom by education and literary bent he has more in common than he has with illiterate working-men (and to whom he feels a filial relation), but he also implicates himself in the cycle of exploitation. He fears that his poetry is, like the old sugar industry and the contemporary tourist trade, just another form of extracting value from a poor and captive populace, that he is a comprador intellectual who has slotted himself into the colonizer’s role:

I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,

preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax

of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy?

Such lyric ambivalence contrasts with the poem’s epic elements, as when Ma Kilman sheds her Christian piety to become an obeah-woman discovering the true names of the island flora so that she can heal Philoctete’s wound with authentic African magic. The poetry is splendid—

One wound gibbers in the weeping

mouth of the sibyl, the obeah-woman, in the swell
of the huge white satin belly, the dark gust that bent her
limbs till she was a tree of snakes, the spidery sibyl

hanging in a sack from the cave at Cumae, the obeah
that possessed her that the priests considered evil
in their white satin frocks, because ants had lent her

their language, the flower that withered on the floor
of moss smelt sweet and spread its antipodal odor
from the seed of the swift; now through a hot meadow

of unnamed flowers, a large woman in a red-berried
hat is walking.

—but is the plot in keeping with the poet’s skepticism? All this seemingly unironic ancient magic seems to stray from Walcott’s intention, as expressed in his beautiful 1992 Nobel lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” to reassemble the shards of world culture scattered by violence throughout the Antilles, a project seemingly more akin to something like Edward Said’s “secular criticism” and “contrapuntal reading” than to celebrations of occulted racial essences:

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

But the tensions of Omeros are in the above passage too: between blood and mind, between ancestry and invention. Are the poet and the people on opposite sides of this line? The poet as collage artist, without access to holistic truth but trying to keep awake lest he lapse back into history’s nightmare, his knowledge of culture as necessarily historical and fragmented granting him a high comic vision on the tragedy of his people—this is Joyce, not Yeats. Joyce accordingly appears in Omeros, singing, “his voice like sun-drizzled Howth,” though the volkish magus silently rears his head whenever Walcott seems to wish to restore St. Lucia, as Yeats wished to restore Ireland, to its “proper dark.”

Following the contemporary critic’s political itinerary from race and class to gender: Hector and Achille fight over a woman. The Homeric parallel is inexact, as Achilles’s combat with Hector was motivated by the loss of Patroclus, the Greek warrior’s male friend (a word you can take as queerly as you like), while Achilles’s quarrel with Agamemnon was, un-poetically—and horrifyingly—enough to the contemporary eye, over a sex-slave named Briseis. Walcott puts Helen between them, just as his own literary project rivals Plunkett’s over the terrain of the feminized island. Femininity is praised from afar, but is rarely articulate in this poem. The poet laments his dying mother, but takes his mission from his dead father, and his dead poetic fathers moreover. Helen is figurehead and symbol, but not a consciousness:

Change burns at the beach’s end. She has to decide
to enter the smoke or to skirt it. In that pause
that divides the smoke with a sword, white Helen died;

in that space between the lines of two lifted oars,
her shadow ambles, filly of Menelaus,
while black piglets root the midden of Gros Îlet,

but smoke leaves no signature on its pages of sand.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away,”
she croons, her clear plastic sandals swung by one hand.

The absence of a woman equal to poet and protagonist—except in the form of the obeah-woman, too mythical and too maternal to rival the modern poet—is marked in the poem by Walcott’s self-interrogating voice as he allows that both he and Plunkett neglect Helen’s individuality and turn her into an idealized metaphor: “Why not see Helen / as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow…?” But the postmodern poet’s tragedy is that ironizing one’s acts makes them no less active. This brings me to my concluding question: how might we criticize Omeros? It is a hard poem to criticize. Its proficiency and invention are unsurpassed in my experience; Walcott, on a technical level, must quite simply be the best Anglophone poet of his century, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Yeats (on this topic, see here for a more learned and sensitive commentary than I can offer).

But poetry is vision as well as technique. Ryu Spaeth does not so much contest Walcott’s vision as upbraid the man for failing the live up to it. Fair enough: hypocrisy is always a legitimate target of the moralist. Walcott spoke, says Spaeth, for the oppressed and dispossessed, and was canonized under the reign of multiculturalism less for his formal mastery—which the multiculturalist distrusts as the potential corollary of imperial mastery—than “because he was giving voice to people who had been ignored and exploited and enslaved by a dominant culture.” Leaving aside the misgivings about this “giving voice” expressed in Omeros itself, Spaeth arraigns Walcott for decrying oppression while enacting it himself—on the bodies and minds of the women he allegedly sexually harassed as a university instructor. Spaeth organizes his argument by contrasting Walcott with his fellow Antillean, Jean Rhys, whom he construes, along with the students Walcott harassed, as “the victims of a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries.” Walcott’s alleged behavior was a reprehensible betrayal of pedagogical trust and a sinisterly bathetic enactment of male entitlement, which is, honestly, not so surprising when you consider Omeros‘s women. What does this mean for the work?

Spaeth’s criticism is of the “your fave is problematic” school, which is itself problematic, as our favorite artists’ problems are not wholly avoidable by any human being. To wit: Jean Rhys makes as poor a PC hero as Walcott does to anyone who pays attention to such criticism. It has been a generation since she appeared in John Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses as yet another cooly aloof modernist elitist and, more damningly in the context of Spaeth’s essay, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” where her anti-canonical masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, is shown by the postcolonial critic to offer a narrative no less consecrated to white imperial feminism than the Victorian bildungsroman it purports to redact, as, in short, “a novel which rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native.” So much for the literature of social justice.

The arts will never offer a port in history’s storm, nor do we have any right to ask that of them. As long as the worm of hierarchy wriggles in the human heart, impelling one person or one class to rule over another, then we can never live in an egalitarian utopia, cleansed of such pests. The calamitous career of the political left in the twentieth century reveals that forced efforts at cleansing usually kill the host as well as the parasite, which is why the resurgence in our time of an essentially Maoist or Stalinist criticism would be a broadly worrying trend if only the crimes of the left were well-known enough to worry people as much as those of the right (quite rightly) do. But let’s entertain—in a leftist’s equivalent of Pascal’s wager—the thought that we might someday inhabit a world without violence or domination. The only way such a hope could ever be realized without extermination—which is to say peacefully—involves our overcoming through reason the flaws in our own character, and we will only overcome them if we can know them. How else to know them but through the testimony of the poets? As Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism,

The corruption out of which human art has been constructed will always remain in the art, but the imaginative quality of the art preserves it in its corruption, like the corpse of a saint.

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize both our ideals and also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but uncertainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Dante, Purgatorio

The Divine Comedy II: PurgatoryThe Divine Comedy II: Purgatory by Dante Alighieri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m specifically talking about the Dorothy L. Sayers translation here. In her preface, Sayers notes that this is the most loved of the Divine Comedy‘s canticles. It is the most human, many commentators say, since it alone takes place within the realm of the temporal, on earth. Its spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem so much more “realistic” than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of “we’re all fellow sufferers here” similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a job. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, and others. It doesn’t bother me—there are more painful ways to learn about theology. The long-awaited appearance of a Beatrice full of maternal “stern pity” amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that Sayers must sometimes admit ignorance is as memorable a moment as I’ve encountered in western narrative, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. This is a poet’s canticle, full of poets and other artists, and striking disquisitions on art. Beckett’s Belacqua is here, and Browning’s Sordello, and a couple of lines from The Waste Land. The Troubadours are honored in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out the lust-purging fire.* A strange poem, more mature than the Inferno, of more obvious relevance to the purgatory of earthly life.

About Sayers: so far she’s the only Dante for me.  She keeps the terza rima, supposedly an impossible feat in English, and also works mostly in iambic pentameter, or at least a five-beat line.  While this occasionally leads her into some unpersuasive rhyming and some near-doggerel, it gives it the velocity the poem is supposed to have in Italian due to the frequency of the rhymes, and makes it sound almost like a real English poem, maybe not a world masterpiece, but at its best comparable to Tennyson or the Rossettis.  I greatly prefer this to the recent translations in prosy free or blank verse that sound like something published in the New Yorker, the wry self-embarrassed tones of contemporary poetry, as if it all had to be read aloud by Bill Murray.  I also find Sayers’s extensive notes useful—she is a believer and expounds the theology from the inside, in lucid terms; it’s like a course in medieval thought.  Some people complain about this approach—in part because she simply explains the logic of why, for instance, from this POV sodomy is a sin or non-Christians have to be in Hell very dispassionately and without apology; but I would rather understand Dante than have his unsurprisingly medieval social views pointlessly denounced by the translator.

Her introduction to the Purgatorio, written in the mid-1950s, is especially interesting as she argues at length from an Anglo-Catholic perspective against a Freudian interpretation of Beatrice as “mother-imago” and also against a Romantic appropriation of Beatrice to “the eternal feminine,” or Jungian anima archetype; both psychoanalysis and Romanticism she identifies as revivals of magical and gnostic thinking, which to her mind ought to have been superseded by the rational supernaturalism of Catholic doctrine, in which the ultimate truth is always incarnate, so that Christ was man and God at once and Beatrice both a real woman and a God-bearing image. This conviction leads her, in the case of Beatrice, to articulate a fascinating Christian feminist perspective now mostly absent from intellectual and political dialogue except as a certain “common sense” (“feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings”) that necessarily has to disavow its origin in Christianity’s historical defeat of the gods and, yes, goddesses:

In Dante’s case there is no possible doubt about it: the redemption is in the personal love. I do not, in fact, find in his work any vestiges of “Ewig-Weiblich” mystique: there is the one Lady, there are a number of subsidiary ladies: but of mere Feminist as a power for good or evil there is no more trace than in the Gospels. Further, I am not convinced about the “woman reader”. I think that, as I have indicated before, the average woman of intelligence is fairly ready to believe in the value of a personal relationship, but the idea of a peculiar mana attached to femaleness as such, deriving as it does from primitive fertility-cults and nature-magic, is likely to strike her as either nonsensical or repellent.

*Sayers ingeniously and disastrously renders his Provencal dialogue as “Border Scots” on the theory that its relation to English is similar to Provencal’s relation to Italian. That’s as may be, but it comes off as silly, as if Bobbie Burns had wandered into the poem.

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