2021 marks the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. There is a strange synchronicity in the fact that 2021 marks the year in which we begin, tentatively, to emerge from the clutches of the pandemic with some degree of hope, as Dante’s seminal work, The Divine Comedy, is all about hope, and how we move from being hope-less to hope-full of holy union with God and the stars. Hell is a place where all hope has to be abandoned, whereas heaven is a place where hope springs eternal.
As we begin to view the future more optimistically, a host of visionary artists have emerged in order to celebrate the work of the great master. From sculptors such as Timothy Schmalz, who is producing the world’s first three-dimensional interpretation of the all three volumes: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise in the form of a sculpture garden; to illustrators such as George Cochrane, who has laboured to create a fully-illustrated and lettered edition of Dante’s work (entirely by hand!). In fact, illustrated versions of Dante’s Divine Comedy abound, as we can see from the Italian publisher, Chartesia, who are producing their own special 700th anniversary edition of the epic poem featuring art from a number of artists.
Artist Angela Perret has taken another interpretation of the Divine Comedy altogether, working on creating a “geology of hell” in the form of ceramics that resemble meteoric hunks of the infernal crust. This begs the question: does each circle have its own unique composition? And how does the flow of rivers such as Styx and Phlegethon influence this stone? Dante is said to have “mapped” hell in a unique way, and so Angela continues this tradition of mapping the underworld.
Judith Warbey has created a “calligraphy of hell”, visually embodying the meaning of specific passages in the way the letters and words are formed. She has taken influence from both Dante’s Divine Comedy and from my own HellWardfor this (which is a great honour!). Her calligraphy reminds me of a line from Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellin which a corpse the magician Jonathan Strange animates starts rambling in a language none of the onlookers can understand. Strange, however, realises what is happening, “He is speaking the language of hell.”
Linda Sale, my wife, has produced two extraordinary pieces entitled “Emerging Face” and “I Am Here And There”. These are inspired by Dante but also HellWard, and reflect the binary nature of master-mentor (seen in Virgil and Dante, and Dante and myself), of id and super-ego, light- and shadow-self. The ultimate journey through hell is not one of overcoming the shadow, but embracing and incorporating it into our personality, assimilating it in a healthy way. She has beautifully captured this meaning with her diptych.
Angela Perret, Judith Warbey, and Linda Sale will all have their work featured at the upcoming exhibition dedicated to the 700th Anniversary of Dante. This exhibition will be hosted in Poole (in the UK), at The Gallery Upstairs, during the month of June. For more information about this event, please head on over to:https://www.facebook.com/thewidercircleexhibition.
And now, finally, are you planning to celebrate Dante this year? And if so, how are you going to do it? Let us know and you could be featured on this site!
British poet James Sale has a mission. A lifelong poet, he is now turning himself to what is perhaps the most ambitious project of his career. He’s writing an epic poem of heaven and hell that “stands four-square against the meaninglessness of post-modernism.”
Sale began writing The English Cantos in 2017. The first volume, HellWard, was published in 2019, and he is working on the next volume. If “HellWard” sounds something like “The Inferno,” it should. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is the model. In fact, Dante (like Virgil) serves as the guide to the poet embarking on the journey of Hellward. Sales considers Dante’s epic as one of the greatest ever written because of “the profound belief system behind the overt belief system.” The overt belief system is Roman Catholic; the belief system behind it is something broader. It’s no surprise than poet John Milton is an inspiration here.
The title “HellWard” also borrows from Sale’s experience with a malignant sarcoma in 2011, which required three months in the hospital. He commends his medical care, but he notes that any prolonged hospital experience, no matter how good the care, is a kind of prison where you suffer, accompanied by people around you suffering, some more intensely than you. Over that three months, he spent time in five wards, each different, suggesting a loose similarity to Dante’s nine circles.
Instead of nine circles, Sale has 12, each depicted with its own canto. The story begins, appropriately enough, in the hospital, and then progresses through meetings with relatives, friends, pupils, and supervisors, before descending to the lower and worse regions of mass murderers, Brexit, and poetasters, with philosophers occupying the lowest (and worst) of all. Each canto is introduced by a short prose summary entitled “The Argument,” because Sale wants you to know exactly what lies ahead.
This is how the first canto, “Hospital,” begins.
It had to be — that long descent began: About me images, one century That started, stuttered, showed how poor is man
In all things except his savagery. My grandfather’s face, first in that stale line, Who missed the trenches through admin’s mystery;
Was sent instead to fight in Palestine, While friends he’d known all died in No-Man’s-Land. How lucky, then, for him; for me a sign:
Despite the misery, unintended, unplanned That characterized the fools who sought to build A better world – progress – to make a stand,
As it were; as if politics could field A force sufficient to overcome gods Whose power, agencies were not like to yield
To mortal die, its throes and sadder odds. Or, as if science, too, could weight outcomes — Build Babels better far than Nimrod did.
HellWard is not simply a refashioning of Dante. It is a journey through the sometimes barren and often debris-strewn landscape of contemporary life and culture. And it is a dangerous journey; several times, the guide Dante has to pluck the poet from imminent destruction. Most significantly, it is a journey showing that life has meaning, and people have choices, choices that can deceive as to their effect and outcome.
Sales has been writing poetry for more than 50 years. One might say he’s also been living and breathing poetry for at least that long. In addition to his own writing and readings, he’s been a poetry publisher, a promoter of poets and poetry events, a judge in poetry competitions, a guest poet, a guest writer on poetry, and winner of numerous poetry competitions himself. His poems have been published in magazines and journals in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Few contemporary poets would even consider attempting to write an epic on this scale. What Sale has done and is doing with The English Cantos is nothing short of remarkable.
I’m not a huge fan of poetry, okay I’ve said it. I don’t know what it is, there’s something about the artform that I struggle with, it may have underlining issues with how this was dealt with at my secondary school and the bullying that took place in the classroom from my teacher and directed at me personally because I just didn’t get it.
After that I just turned my back on it, it was clearly for academics and well, I’m no academic.
I never gave up on it totally though, I had to discover it for myself and on my terms.
I had to find the right style that I could get to grips with, I don’t like all the floaty stuff, I like my poetry to be gritty or funny and one of my favourite poets is John Cooper Clarke (The Punk Poet) – his use of wordplay and his uncanny ability to get his point across in funny and engaging prose is something I truly love and admire. I think I enjoy poetry when it is real and heartfelt, when it’s dripping in pain and suffering and darkness (cheery guy that I am). I also have a fascination with the bible and the books of Job, Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) and The Book of Revelation are some of my favourite books of the bible, due to the imagery that is created, the desolation of Job followed by the deftly crafted beauty of Song of Songs and the epic finale that is Revelation – and that is why I loved HellWard by James Sale so much.
How could such power be – the whole cosmos rent Into parts and each part on its own work, And better still, each atom purposeful, sent
Whilst far below on a bed, injured, hurt, Powerless to do evil, much less good, I lay helpless, fit soon to be but dirt?
HellWard by James Sale is a book that I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into. I’d seen a few of these Cantos performed online via Sale and his use of language, the themes of the collection and the bleakness of it were most appealing.
The collection focuses on the Poet as he is in hospital with cancer and calls on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry to help him in his time of need. Later Dante arrives to take the poet on a tour of what can only be described as purgatory or Hell – where our poet meets with people, friends and family – those that had some form of a connection to him at some point in his life.
It is in the meeting of these friends that had me reminiscing about the book of Job (how he also conversed with his friends – whilst being tempted to sin by Satan against his God). The way the Poet meets with these people and converses with them are incredibly well constructed, each one trying to bring him down further into the mire, each one with their own axe to grind, each one laying on blame or accusations, each friend or visitor a step towards a final destination that has yet to be decided.
‘Be careful,’ Dante said, ‘for here’s the end Of hell itself in your world: the last test – Philosophers whose ideas never mend
Or heal a single soul; rather, as pests – Cockroaches scuttling in cellars below – They quarry till your kitchen is their nest.
Sale masterfully gets his point across with these additional characters and the journey is one that is filled with pain, suffering, redemption and hope – the language Sale uses adds a regality to it that one would expect to find in the masters of the form such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante and Milton but as I said I’m not much of a poetry man – so there are probably even more comparisons to be had such is the brilliance of Sale’s prose. You can witness with each Canto that Sale is someone that is passionate about language and poetry, crafting beautiful offerings from the ashes of a life, there is passion within the words and I feel that this is rather a somewhat personal journey for the author, one which comes across in blinding clarity and proves how powerful words can be, how in words sometimes we can find salvation and hope, but also despair and desolation.
The beauty of the book is in the journey and each Canto adds another layer to this incredible glimpse into the afterlife, the purgatory that awaits us or the hell we may or may not wander when our time comes. Each proceeding Canto has an echo in the next story, driving the reader onwards to a destination that they and the poet fear to tread, and it’s this that builds a palpable tension within the book and adds weight to the words and the prose that is always beautifully poetic. The wordsmithery of Sale ensures that each line is as sharp as a scalpel, that each verse hits with the directness of an arrow to a target, and ensures each Canto will take your breath away as you walk the delicate line that Sale has weaved before us.
The blurb of the book details that HellWard is based on Sale’s near-death experience in Ward 17 of Bournemouth General Hospital – and you can feel all the passion, pain, hurt, hope, despair, suffering, longing and fear in every line, it comes across as a deeply personal account of someone’s last days, a epic battle that is waging over their soul. HellWard also asks questions of the afterlife, leaves the reader pondering who will be waiting for them in the Hell Ward when their time comes, and it is this epic beauty, these unanswered questions that in my opinion solidifies Sale as ‘England’s Epic Poet’.
Ross Jeffery is the author of Juniper. A Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982. His debut novella Juniper was published by The Writing Collective in January 2020 to much praise and is available from Amazon stores – click here.
Though ideas of hell and its theological structures or “models” existed before Dante, Dante was perhaps the first writer to construct an architecture of hell so vivid and specific, to the point where many of his readers believed he had actually been there. Dante’s hell differs from many glimpses of the underworld that we are afforded in the works of Homer or Virgil. His hell is a mappable place, charted with a cartographer’s eye.
One of the key architectural features of this hell, a feature that was perhaps surprising to his readers, and indeed is still surprising to new readers of Dante, is the fact that hell is arranged in “circles” that spiral downward into the pit. Nine circles, to be precise. Not seven (which would be the obvious choice given the Catholic concept of the seven deadly sins, and seven days of creation), but nine. Research has suggested that, in fact, there are nine key drivers of human behaviour or nine “motivators”, based on various sources, including the Enneagram and even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Could it be that Dante understood this psychological idea intuitively?
His choice of nine circles is even more intriguing when we consider western architecture, on the whole, is mostly angular or square, sometimes triangular, but almost never circular except in rare examples such as in the coliseums of Rome. In fact, it is more often Asian cultures that employ circles in their architecture, so Dante’s conception of a circular hell is culturally anomalous, against the grain of usual western thought, but of course psychologically genius. Circles represent cycles, endlessly repeating, and so Dante’s inhabitants of hell are trapped in their own warped logic, their own justifications for their actions, and the repetition of their own sins.
One of the greatest modern interpretations of this is in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (which literally means “spiral”), originally published in 2010. Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist and writer, who has created some of the most haunting horror imagery of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He is greatly influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and “cosmic horror”, but an often overlooked aspect of his work is the Dantean. Uzumaki is the story of Kirie Goshima, a young girl living in a coastal town that is slowly falling into the grip of a “spiral curse”. The townsfolk, to varying degrees, become obsessed and subsequently infected by spirals. The story opens with Kirie finding her lover Shuichi’s father staring at a wall, inspecting a snail.
From this tiny beginning, everything spirals (forgive the pun) out of control. The “curse” of the spiral, though we are unsure if this is really what is going on, takes many different forms, including causing people to warp their own bodies into torturous offerings.
Ito-san’s spirals operate with similar symbolic significance to the circles of hell, namely, they are partly allegorical, as well as literal, of the spirals and endless cycles of human behaviour. Here, Shuichi’s father has become twisted, and so, as in Dante’s hell all things become literal, he is physically twisted to reflect his psychological reality. Each person in Uzumaki is trapped in their own sin.
Shuichi, Kirie’s boyfriend, is trapped in his paranoia and pessimism. He sees the spiral’s work in everything (even a bowl of noodles, or a river).
Shuichi is eternally depressed, his face warped in a kind of rictus. The sad thing is he’s often right, and is the first to see the spiral for what it really is, though his warnings fall on deaf ears. He is like Cassandra in Greek mythology, knowing the future, but cursed never to be believed.
Kirie, on the other hand, is trapped by her own virtue. Many times Shuichi offers to run away with Kirie, but she refuses, because she will not abandon her family. Her desire to help others becomes almost selfish rather than selfless as she drags Shuichi down with her into a labyrinth from which, eventually, they cannot escape.
Each person who falls victim to the spiral throughout this expansive epic is guilty of some kind of engrossing behaviour that ends up determining them. Shuichi’s father is a collector, and his obsession combined with the spiral leads to him collecting spiral objects, and ultimately, warping his own body into a spiral and putting himself in a box, like of one his cherished possessions.
Kirie’s own father is a ceramic-maker, and he refers to it as “the art of the spiral”, using the spinning disc to form his creations. He becomes so obsessed by his art, that it leads to him shaping spiral pottery out of the dead. He’ll literally defile the dead if it means he can achieve an artistic break.
A lazy young boy who never attends class on time is transformed into a snail, so he will forever be slower than the others.
Azami, a beautiful young girl at school whom our Kirie is jealous of, is obsessed with keeping young men in her circle, and eventually becomes a monster, whose head is hollowed out by a grotesque spiral eating into her brain. Men are drawn into this spiral, feeding her ego (located perhaps in the frontal cortex).
There are subtle nods to Dante throughout Uzumaki. For example, as the power of the spiral increases, vortexes sweep across the town, much like the hurricane winds that trap Paulo and Francesca in Dante’s second circle. And, perhaps an even more direct allusion, the story of Yoriko and Kazunori. Yoriko and Kazunori are two young lovers whose families hate each other and will not permit them to be together; so, the two end up betraying their families. Their relationship oversteps the boundary of true love and becomes a kind of co-dependence. The spiral finds them, and they become one twisted serpentine creature, each wrapped round the other, now inseparable and co-dependent forever.
Junji Ito understands, as Dante did, that even positive emotions like love have a place in hell when they are taken to extremes.
Like a spiral itself, the story circles whilst drawing ever closer to a central point. Geographically, Junji Ito locates this in the middle of his town: a lake from which many of the spiral-problems seem to stem. When we finally venture to this lake, we discover the truth of the spiral. Again, like Dante, Junji Ito doesn’t flinch from showing us the full expanse and architecture of the hell he has created, and we see the very “nadir” or low-point of the spiral, and what that represents.
Recently, I published an article on the Epoch Times about the story of Cain and Abel and how it tells us a great deal about human nature, evil, and spirituality. One of the principle things that inspired me to write this article is the frightening rise of murders and shootings (especially in America), combined with increasing secularism. Furthermore, a denial of hell, even among religious circles.
Whilst I made many theological arguments for hell’s existence, there is a more ‘relate-able’, shall we say, argument that I did not fully cover. That is: whether we believe hell exists on some kind of metaphysical or spiritual plain is, in actual fact, largely irrelevant. Hell most certainly exists psychologically for millions of people.
I’ve spoken before on how the ancient Greeks depicted a hell that is wrought with psychological implications. Tantalus, for example, tortured by the inability to satisfy his thirst (which might well be a representation of addiction). Sisyphus, trapped in the meaningless, automatic behaviour of rolling the boulder up the hill (how many people do we know with their own “boulder” that they ceaselessly roll?). However, Dante also depicts a very psychological hell. The adulterers, Francesca and Paolo, are trapped in the whirlwind of their own emotions. A fitting image. Their murderer, however, the jealous husband Giancotto, lies deeper in Caina, the infernal plain whereon those who murder their own kin are sent (named after Cain, who is of course the first murderer).
This is what is called in Italian contrapasso, where the punishment fits the crime. But, to quote the great Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” In other words, metaphysics aside, the very nature of our crimes wreaks havoc upon our mind, bodies, and soul. We are not punished by an external force as much as we are punished by our own psyches. And the power of our own psyches to destroy us should never be underestimated!
Dante constructed a cosmology of hell, where his cruel and unusual punishments are strikingly imaginative and harrowing to read about. But, in some ways, the nature of the crimes are not the product of imagination, so much as of empathy. He senses the turmoil that each crime or “sin” creates and raps into that to give us a window into what it feels like to be that person.
We might see this illustrated in an infinite number of stories, including Edgar Allan Poe’s paranoid tale The Telltale Heart, which strikingly portrays the psychological torment of covering up a murder. However, we also see it reflected in reality. Ted Bundy, one of the worst killers in history, escaped confinement twice. The first time, after a few days hiding out in the mountains, he willingly returned and effectively handed himself in to the police. This in itself is disturbing in the extreme. He had killed many women and was destined for a life sentence. Why hand himself over unless he knew, deep down, that he had done something unforgiveable? He was, in his own warped way, perhaps punishing himself.
He later escaped prison a second time (crawling through a narrow tunnel he had dug much in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption). Rather than disappear, never to be seen from again, he killed three more women, including a twelve year old girl. He had every chance to get away, but his decision to kill again meant that police were able to locate him. He finally received the electric chair in 1979.
Like Sisyphus, Bundy was compelled by his own terrifying behaviours. Given a second opportunity for freedom, one in which the authorities were very unlikely to catch him if he laid low, he decided instead to repeat his horrific crimes. If this isn’t hell, I don’t know what is. And just to be clear: I’m not, in any way, justifying or sympathising with Ted Bundy. There are very few human beings who deserved the unfiltered appellation of ‘evil’, but he is surely one of them. He suffered, and brought suffering to others.
The real problem with people in hell, is that they bring hell with them.
When I was a child I was fascinated by myths, and especially those concerning the underworld, what we sometimes call journeys into hell. It is difficult to account for why these sort of stories appealed to me, although now – at the later end of my life – it’s all very clear. Having been to hell – my 3 months hospitalization and battle with cancer, the source of inspiration for The English Cantos themselves – then obviously my fascination was a sort of premonition of my own descent.
All cultures have stories of heroes who descend into hell; it seems to be one of the most universal stories. I am fascinated by all of these versions, but some of the most intriguing to me are the myths of the Ancient Greeks, not in the least for the psychological realities they reveal. Many of their heroes stormed hell – Heracles, Theseus, Odysseus to mention only three, three who returned. Of course, some – like Pirithous – failed to make it back.
But of all the heroes who explored hell, the greatest – the one who descended furthest – was ironically not a great warrior at all: the poet and musician Orpheus went deeper into the Underworld than even Heracles, and did it through his music and poetry alone. What is the significance, then, of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?
First, the desire to enter hell arose not from a compulsion for heroics but because his beloved wife, Eurydice, had died as a result of a snake bite. Thus Orpheus resolved to enter hell in order to bring his wife back to life.
In facing all the dangers and perils of hell, Orpheus’ solution was the same: to play his music and sing his song. So Charon, the ferryman, rowed him across the Styx without the obligatory payment; so Cerberus, the three headed dog that was virtually impossible to subdue, except by Heracles, was charmed into sleeping by the music; so all perils and obstacles yielded to the music. Till at last, Orpheus stood in the very throne room of Hades, lord of death and hell, himself.
There, before Hades and his queen, Persephone, Orpheus reached the climax of his song and struck the notes. It is said for the first and only time Hades wept – tears of molten tar. But more remarkable still, being in the throne room itself meant that the sound within its box vibrated throughout the whole domain of hell itself. All in hell heard the song of Orpheus.
Thus it was that the damned, Ixion at his wheel, Tantalus striving for his water, and Sisyphus fruitlessly and endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill only to find it roll back down each time, suddenly froze. They heard the music and their pain lifted. Their dull animal instincts to repeat and repeat their pointless activities – like rats in a maze – gave way to the return of human cognition.
For a moment they experienced relief and were enthralled by beauty – the beauty of Orpheus’ singing.
And then it ended – and the damned returned to their endless damnation. Hades was grateful for the entertainment and said he would grant whatever Orpheus wished for; Orpheus requested the return of the life of Eurydice. This was granted but with one tiny condition: that she follow him some twenty paces behind and that he must not turn to look at her before reaching sunlight again. Orpheus eagerly agreed.
So Orpheus retraced his happy steps, knowing Eurydice was right behind him, following him back to life. But then tragedy struck – within sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel leading up to the world, Orpheus needed to check she was still there. He turned, looked, and even as he did so her form, which had gained substantiality on the way up, now began to de-compose; she waved one last despairing wave, and was gone, forever. His journey had achieved nothing, and he returned alone to the world of sunshine above ground.
But had he achieved nothing? It seems to me two important lessons emerge from the tale. The first is by asking the question, why did he fail? The answer is clear: he failed because of his unbelief – his lack of faith – he did not take the god at his word. The god, who was delighted with the song and the singer, had no reason to lie, and yet Orpheus in turning refused to believe him.
And this is our problem: we do not believe the god who speaks within us – what Jung called the Self – the deeper part of us that incorporates the unconscious and the archetypes. We rationalise and we think our egos know all the truth – and then as we disbelieve the god we are struck down with our own specific tragedies.
The second lesson, however, is far more optimistic. It is to contemplate how hell itself began to turn into heaven as the song was sung; and that reminds us that the universe – the uni (one) – verse (song or poem) is precisely that. All life, all joy is in the music, the pattern, the structure that underpins all that is. And so, even hell is transformed if we can sing our own song.
Are you Orpheus? Are you singing your song – being your own poem? Or are you someone who will die with their music still unsung and inside them? The message is clear: get singing – who knows – you may well rescue your own Eurydice from the depths.