In Canto XI: Poetasters:
“The Poet, having escaped the HellWard of European dictators and corrupt British politicians, emerges into the penultimate HellWard depth where he, with his guide, Dante, meets the Poetasters from America and Britain. These lost souls have denied Apollo and the real meaning and purpose of poetry. They have, thus, have been guilty of promoting a most heinous crime and so must finally encounter the River Lethe.”
Still with Dante as his guide, he proceeds, to a cave containing the ‘truly mad’, the pretentious aesthetes. In this epic, aesthetics cuts to the quick:
“Here even Dante wearied at the scene,
As if the heaven he was in could not
Protect him from writings, low and obscene.”
A reference to Ginsberg’s Howl – condemned as “Conceived entirely not from soul, but head.” James’s accusations are manifold: “Devised false words to undermine true meaning . . . And those confusions which their failed explainings . . . So little light and even less remorse”
One ‘inmate’ cries, “Help me escape this awful pit.” Dante arrives to stir up the mud. Jinnsberg (Ginsberg) appears, and emotes (in the author’s opinion vacuously) then Dante ‘conjured up’ a ditch, which forces Jinnsberg down
Powerful metaphor of panic:
“His fear, hysterical as a boil sealed shut
Beneath the skin, but bursting to explode . . .”
He made one more attempt, then disappeared: “With all the counterculture and its lies.” I am not in sympathy with all the judgements in this epic.
Raphael mai amech izabi almi – Raphael began to clamour with the ferocious mouth. Raphael is in chains, under the curse of Nimrod, the Confusion of Tongues. Nimrod emotes ferociously, but then ushers James onward.
He condemns the false poets: “So godless, they must go to nothing’s hole.” Further condemnation of Walt Whitman – his utterances condemned as spit and ash. This is a further point of disagreement:
“But each hated the other with furious rage;
And more, despised true poets writing true.”
There is no specification of the true poets! They are condemned as deafening and dead. Dante could barely stand it, ok.
Then What About the Brits? Praise of Shakespeare, then sustained damning of just about everyone since. There must be some honourable exceptions. Sir Handy (Hardy?) Dante tries to comfort James, cynically resigned:
“Compassion elevates the human mien,
But pity here is pointless and askew”
He longs for Apollo, the Muses and Orpheus. The next target seems to be Carol Ann Duffy. Again, I cannot go along with this condemnation. But I do appreciate the author’s having the grace to be self-critical.
“Perhaps here, I too, became as bad;
Instead of curses it was time to bless,
For only blessings let poetry be made.”
In Canto XII the poet addresses the Philosophers:
“The Poet, having escaped the HellWard of false prophets and poetasters now encounters the false philosophers whose ideas have spread misery and mayhem to so many. One whose song epitomises all the false promises of secularism; another who has led women to deny themselves and their nature; and finally, Satan’s final trick – a populist and scientist claiming God does not exist. But the god Apollo appears and his light shows the way out of hell.”
Longing to “restore the love that’s heaven’s message . . . ignored, or never heard. The majority are to be lost in the deluge – only those who seek the Gods survive.” He pities the vainglorious who have abandoned belief in a power above. Dante senses his grief and sustained his hope.
“But those whom Orpheus taught to sing know well
How suffering pain must be – so pay the cost:
How, in the depths of feeling’s pit of hell,
True poets sing the song to somewhere else,
Where heaven forms, even as their words spell It.”
“Following Lethe’s subtleties”, James is led into a tip of useless, fragile clutter. He wonders at “This ward where ovens thaw-through those half-baked!” Then the grand proclamation:
“’Be careful,’ Dante said, ‘for here ís the end
Of hell itself in your world: the last test.”
An attack on John Lennon’s Imagine, which I cannot go along with – described as a corpse, riddled with bullets – “All wisdom’s rot was in one song.”
Dante’s stern judgement: “There ís no hope / For those who think their efforts earn rewards.” In answer to James’s plea that one should expect one’s work to show one’s best, Dante replies “Until you drink pure milk, there is no cure.” This ‘pure milk’ is later defined”
“. . . the great cosmos formed / By Him from nothing and / His heart of Fire; The One whose Word – how majestic then encalmed Chaos’s own self.”
Dante’s assertion is a benign, spiritual explosion which blasts away the dross. But then there appears the figure of an Amazon woman – Leia Leer. She has “cut down men, fallen in love with Achilles after trying to kill him, Only my carcass screwed man after man.”
There is an altercation between her and Dante: “Her ideas drew women from womanhood . . . Practised infamy as fame’s whoring tart . . . Enslaved herself by every known lust.” She retorts that he is a ‘giant poet’, so it would be an honour to have sex with her. She offers him a challenge:
“You could – we could – explore my fetid fig,
Then write a canto undermining men . . .”
She is prepared to be self-denigratory with her proposition. Then she assaults Dante. James is horrified, but Dante stands passive. Her rain of blows vaporises. She becomes ‘virtually nothing’. Dante outlines her ‘career’, in which she misled millions, duped herself and them – “To out-think God, contain Him in their heads”. Now she is reduced to nothing. She afforded entry to Satan – made “Some pit not even Beelzebub might mine . . .”
James feels a desperate need to move on from the wards, lest he might be infected by them. He feels remorse “for all the lost, / Who once like me had prospect of reward . . .” James’s and Dante’s journey proceeds to “A point at centre, at evil’s dead core . . .” However, Dante reminded him of the Grace of God:
“This truth, believed, helps you escape these ills
Whereby these damned are stuck and come to nothing,
Except to know they caused just what they feel.”
They proceed to meet one bed-ridden entity called Rich – an armchair academic. There follows an indictment of a hallowed institution:
“Well, Oxford, England proves a fertile host
To entertain and spread mental pandemics
That waste the land and leave the people lost.”
Like many of his ilk, Rich is “All nice, concealing vicious, vile envy”; he is condemned for getting others to laugh at God. Now he is making a failed attempt at self-evaluation: “Not nous to own he doesn’t know enough.” All his intellectual premises disintegrate. His fate is compared to the unravelling of Penelope’s weaving.
Then enter Nemesis, one of supreme power:
“Nemesis! – daughter worse than any son –
Whom Satan’s self cannot escape or thwart,
Who binds the giants, holds the Titans down! . . .”
Even Satan is in terror of her. Hers is the ultimate source of power – “Before creation even took its punt . . .” She could destroy both wrong and right. Satan goes into a masturbatory panic; his organ assumes grotesque proportions. He makes a desperate bid for power:
“Nib-like, his penis wrote the cosmic contract:
One third part his for all eternities.”
Rich is temporarily reassured by Satan’s pact, and begins to write; but then things falter:
“Mere scrawling wreckage, from his head’s dull striking
And gouging marks on a lax putty plaque.”
He looks back to a mythicized past – “Missing the memes from ancient times”. He hypothesizes the ‘day of reckoning’: “. . . when all the trembling world stopped / And held its breath in fear: what would One say?” As he expostulates, his cardigan disintegrates, revealing his skin “in dissolute, dissolving form”.
Mysteriously, paradoxically, James gets a sense of light. How could this be, in the ultimate depths?
“A ward where no windows were, and no gaps,
Far, far beyond substance and time’s taut terms,”
Then James is bombarded by heat rays of incredible intensity. The event forces Dante to shield his eyes. Then there is a vision of a beach, morning tide at sunrise – “waves, reflecting good’s true side”. Enter Apollo on the scene. A supra-scientific vision of a Godhead:
“About his being flickered photon-streams
In constant interplay with the black air
Which – forced back – radiance overcame.”
Rich makes a last, feeble, desperate appeal: “real science demands doubt”, then comes to nothing. He has been cut off from Apollo’s light.
Now James is overwhelmed by his vision of Apollo – “my future he unwound”. He almost collapses with the revelation, but Dante again props him up. Apollo’s message is like a thunderstorm. He prays for Apollo’s guidance. Dante reminds James that Apollo has pointed James’s direction. He urges James to follow Apollo’s path of growth as he, Dante, did in the past. James is now under an Orpheus-like obligation not to look back. He feels fatally tempted by her ‘Whose beauty outweighed the whole universe.’ He has a moment of extreme vulnerability.
But Phoebus smiles, and Dante remains at his side. He must escape a universal collapse:
“The ground lurched – gave way – for time would not wait;
These wards were due to sink down in their lakes
Of fire, and I must leap to miss their fates.
I heard behind chaos, like timber, crack;
And then perpetual ruin, as if mad,
Asylum-bound souls screeched for their own wrack.
But I, on a solid stairwell, now stood,
Weeping. Who could not, at such loss of good?”
Hope springs eternal.
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