Letters From Hell

(Guest Blog) The Whip of Sight Translation, Metaphor, and Poetic Energy by Daniel Fitzpatrick

As Robert Frost sees it, poetry is what is lost in translation. When we consider the relationship between translation and metaphor, that both mean to bear over, to carry across, Frost’s assessment, more even than characteristic statement of his wry cynicism, takes on something of the contour of his poetry. In Frost we find much more of the figure than the figurative. His metaphors often slip by, flickering beneath the surface of the phenomenon he shows us. That is if he employs metaphor at all. Often he does not, as in the case of “The Road Not Taken,” or only glancingly, as perhaps could be said of the “sweep” of the snowflakes in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

In his more explicit similetic moments, to be sure, Frost allows for the great figurative flights into otherness which for Aristotle mark genius. Consider the “ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow” to which the speaker of “Hyla Brook” compares the song of the spring peepers. Even here the effect may be more musical than exact, far different from the metaphor whereby the brook’s bed “is left a faded paper sheet” a few lines on. This latter instance is more in character. It is in a sense no metaphor at all. The dry leaves in the bed of a brook have in fact become something of a sheet of paper.

Similar modes of metaphor are in play in such slightly longer lyrics as “Birches.” There is the arresting comparison of the limbs to those girls on hands and knees with hair thrown over their heads to dry, and then there are those light, almost unremarkable metaphors like the “crystal shells” the winter sun cracks and crazes. In such moments Frost takes us not into that metaphorical gulf between being and non-being but rather into the asymptotic nearness of contraries approaching each other as they approach Being itself. He is a poet of body language, of the metaphors those things which stand over against us hand us in order to help us describe them.

In all this Frost occupies a very different space from those contemporary poets who delight us by their indefatigable comparative activity. Sharon Olds, for example, in “Summer Solstice, New York City,” supplies us with as many metaphors—all apt, all electric—as Frost has in the four poems so far mentioned. Olds gives us a rush through whitewater, a passage in which we can never lose the impulse of our direction even as our gaze is whipped every which way. Frost ferries us across a placid river, always under his own power, always gently enough that we may see our Whitmanian reflections in the water as we cross.

It is in the involution of his language, in his ability to give us interiority through the phenomenal, that Frost’s metaphorical power resides. It is there, in a sense, that all real poetry resides, and it is this which most of all defies translation. If figurative language curls in upon itself, only to bloom before the attentive gaze of the reader, those of us who take up the work of translation run the risk of falsely unfurling the language so that we are left with colorless, odorless meaning.

In my own translation of Dante, I began with two main principles in mind: first, to convey the sound of Dante’s Italian as nearly as English allows, provided that to do so does not introduce an inappropriate poetic or theological dissonance; second, to preserve Dante’s philosophy and theology intact.

As I progressed through the work, there arose a need to add a third, to preserve metaphorical language wherever possible, and this in light of two lines of Inferno IX. The Italian reads, “Gli occhi mi sciolse e disse: ‘Or drizza il nerbo / del viso su per quella schiuma antica” (73-74). I have rendered it as, “He loosed my eyes and said: ‘Now flick the whip / of sight across that antique scum.” The metaphor is unimposing, especially by contrast to the two epic similes, one of a burning wind and the other of the frogs fleeing a snake, between which it falls. And yet the choice of translation in such small matters as the whip of sight, as Vergil puts it, proves critical to the preservation of poetry. What Vergil plainly means is for Dante to “look over there,” and the line is often translated thus. Such translation, however, is a kind of double translation, a move first from one language to another and second from the figurative to the literal. Then poetry is lost in translation.

The matter concerns more, of course, than the words themselves. When Frost gives us the bed of Hyla Brook like a faded paper sheet, he tells us not only that the ground is dry and brittle and brown but that histories live in it and may perhaps be written upon it still. Likewise to flick the whip of sight is not simply to look over there but to embody something about the nature of looking. It is to say that sight is not simply a passive power in which the open eye receives whatever is before it but rather that the seer acts upon the seen object in the moment of seeing.

To translate is in its way to set a metaphor before the reader, to supply a thing which both is and is not its original. It is an act in which poetry can be lost as well as found. In its practice is a step beyond the old half-truth that words alone are certain good into a recognition that words may shape the temporal mind for eternity. In words, in metaphor, in translation, we may bear ourselves over to those fires Olds finds at the end of her Solstice, the fires the first men lit in the first nights; we may bear ourselves forward with Frost through the radiant tension of the quotidian and forward farther still with Dante to the closing of the portal of time. We may by words trace the contours of the work of the Word, speaking being out of nonbeing, calling us ourselves to be translated and behold that Triune vision in whose heart our face is painted.


Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, is out this year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. He is completing an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin, and his poems and essays have appeared in places like Dappled Things and Studia Gilsoniana. He lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with his wife and three children.


You can find out more about his work, here: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/helpdantehelpitaly/

Celebrating the 700th Anniversary of Dante

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 Norrell in 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! 

Thoughts on HellWard from Fiona Agombar

James Sale has written an epic poem which describes the wild energy of hell we all find ourselves in now, if only we are brave enough to look – and look we must for without insight, we remain trapped in the systems of greed and selfishness. His poem takes us on a journey into the darkness of our psyche and it is not until the end that we glimpse the possibility of paradise, which can only be reached from the realisations gained from hell. With Dante as his wise seer and guide, Hellward is a deep insight into human nature – what we have created both as individuals and collectively – our false philosophies and idols which have led us astray and betrayed us. 

‘….They built one tomb
Called planet earth – polluted, warmed and dying’

Indeed self-deception is one of the great themes of this masterpiece and how this leads to the hell of our own undoing and misery. The tale therefore lays before us the warning of how important true discrimination and truth are because without them we are: 

‘Like scorpions perishing from their own stings’ 

His wonderful imagery encourages the reader to reflect on the nature of reality. If something is only an idea in the mind, how has it the ability to take us into chaos and is this at our own hand? In this way our role as victim is challenged.

A hospital ward where Sale is dying of cancer becomes the portal for his prescient vision. Guided by Dante, rather like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he is taken back through life, starting with an unbearably sad meeting with his mother and the realization that he was unacknowledged by her and that this cannot be changed. Journeying on, he meets an ex student, then an ex boss, another poet and others which lead into reflection of the state of humanity and how we created the Iraq war and Brexit. From this we may see the corruptions of the system:

Debris, - slight remnants of surgical mess,
Adhering sticky plasters, blood clots, skin
The horror of humans undone, undressed.

The writing is superb – the poem grabs you by the throat and takes you on a journey through your own psyche triggering all kinds of insights – just like good poetry should. The imagery is beautiful and I cannot recommend Hellward highly enough. This is a poem for now – for post-pandemic – as we reflect on the new world we want to rebuild. Will it be kinder with smaller communities sharing love and connection – or will we be ruled by a few corporate global oligarchs who control us through fear and greed? That’s what I have taken from this anyhow – and that it’s for each one of us to decide. Buy this amazing poem and let it inspire you too. 

Fiona Agombar is an author and advanced yoga teacher in the Krishnamacharya Tradition, with a specialised focus on fatigue. More information about her practice can be found here: http://www.fionaagombar.co.uk

Four Ideas From Dante

Writing for The Epoch Times in New York, James has composed four articles on why Dante is so important in the modern world.

The first article looks at how Dante helps us think, really think – not just re-package stale memes and virtue-signal utopian political slogans. Dante takes us on a journey that forces us to consider what reality really is.

From there, the second article discusses the big issue of our time (although it is often obscured by more immediate concerns, or by seeming to be a merely academic issue): namely, the problem of free will versus determinism. We see how Dante insists on free will and we see its imaginative realisation in the Divine Comedy, not just some dry-as-dust lecture on the topic. Over and above this, in Dante, we see how freedom of the will helps us move away from addictions, compulsions and existential vacuums to the possibilities of real life and the road to beauty.

In the third article, James explores the ways in which Purgatory differs from Hell.

The final article deals with Paradise, discussing how Dante describes a kind of assimilation of the “shadow self” or negative aspect of our personality in order to attain metanoia or “repentance”. Paradise is where we finally attain our full potential and become who we truly are. It seems as if Dante anticipated the work of Carl Jung by some 600 or so years! Given the depth and complexity of Dante’s work, it should come as no surprise how it came to inspire and motivate James to write the English Cantos.

Part 1: https://www.theepochtimes.com/more-dante-now-please-part-1-how-dante-provokes-thinking_3542110.html

Part 2: https://www.theepochtimes.com/more-dante-please-now-part-2-lets-hear-it-for-free-will_3588568.html

Part 3: https://www.theepochtimes.com/more-dante-please-now-part-3-let-beauty-begin_3606914.html

Part 4: https://www.theepochtimes.com/more-dante-now-please-part-4-the-road-of-repentance_3641652.html

(Guest Blog) WRITING AN EPIC POEM IN ENGLISH

by Glynn Young

First published on TweetSpeak.

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.

(Guest Blog) England’s Epic Poet

by Ross Jeffery

Originally published on Storgy Magazine.

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.

The Rebirth of the Epic (Guest Blog)

by Andrew Benson Brown

Originally published on the Society of Classical Poets.

James Sale’s HellWard is the first volume of a planned trilogy entitled The English Cantos. If the quality of the current volume is any indication of the two forthcoming ones, then there is much here for the poetry lover to enjoy, learn from, and look forward to. It is the best epic poem, in the traditional sense of the term, that has been written in the English language in several centuries. This may seem like a large claim (it is), so I will justify this with a few digressions on the nature of epic before delving into details about the book itself.

Part of my assertion has to do with reasons independent of the quality of the present work or the talent of its author: there have been very few who have attempted epic poems in modern times. This in turn is related to several factors:

(1) The first and most obvious is the shift from poetry to prose that has accompanied universal education and the rise of middle class culture in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century this has gone even further, marking another shift away from literacy entirely towards a technofied audio-visual realm and its accompanying mental degeneracy.

(2) Second, it is not an accident that all the notable epic poems from the medieval period onwards are Christian epics. Living as we do in a secular materialistic age in which a religious sensibility is increasingly rare among the educated class, people seldom engage in activities that do not either have a dollar sign attached, lead to an increase in status, or involve immediate sensual gratification. One is therefore unlikely to encounter those who undertake ambitious highbrow literary projects for their own sake, and those that can be found are almost all writing postmodern prose works.

This difference between the Age of Heroes and the Age of Zeroes can be summed up in the discrepancies between the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and its 2007 film version. One theme of the poem is the attempt to reconcile the tension between the pagan concept of fate with God’s goodness and protection. It does this by highlighting the essential hope that Christianity provides, as opposed to the bleakness of the Norse worldview. Beowulf’s fight against Grendel is given all the more metaphysical weight, as the source of the creature’s monstrosity is ascribed to him having once dwelt with “Cain’s clan.” Beowulf acknowledges that he would not have won the battle against Grendel’s mother without God’s guidance, and it is even “the Wielder of Men” who directs his eyes to “a fair, ancient great-sword” before he departs for her cave.

In the (admittedly very entertaining) movie version, however, the Christian element is downplayed, if not derided. References to God’s protection are replaced by a voluptuous Angelina Jolie, and later in the film Beowulf’s wife converts to Christianity while he remains pagan. As an aging king, the titular hero provides this melancholy reflection on cultural change: “We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf. The Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame.” —But this judgment could not be more wrong. In contrast to today, where the hero has become a figure embodying “toxic masculinity” and chivalrous behavior is seen as posing a patriarchal threat to gender equality, the chivalric knights of Spenser and Tasso are embodiments of Christian heroism and virtue. It is the secular modern age, and not Christ, that killed the heroic ideal.

(3) The aforementioned predominance of materialistic worldviews in our times is related to the third reason for the decline of epic: the shift in importance from words to numbers in interpreting the world. STEM-related fields accrue all the status, making every modern democratic citizen of the West a “poet-whipper” full of “carping dispraise” for verse (as Sidney put it), while English lit departments are abandoned to be colonized by intellectual frauds.

(4) Lastly the dearth of epic, as far as poetry is concerned, can be partly attributed to the rise of an academic journal culture that both discourages the publication of long works, and promotes radical political values erroneously associated with writing free verse. One can therefore thank the rise of online journals for removing this hindrance, taking some power out of academia’s ivory tower, and offering an alternative outlet for this endangered genre to flourish once again.

My definition of epic is relatively narrow (leaving out epic novels and film cycles, which have their own standards of legitimacy). Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has been called an epic, as has James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, though in my own view these are mistaken ascriptions rooted in the modern tendency to overgeneralize this term to any long poem simply by virtue of its length. In both cases, the values embodied are entirely narcissistic. In the first example, we are dealing with a man who fluctuates between self-absorbed homoerotic ramblings and a pantheistic urge to hump the universe. In the second, a guy who fancied that his lifelong obsession with talking to a Ouija board could form the basis of a compelling poststructuralist narrative.

Length itself is not necessarily a criterion of epic, or at least should not be. The Old English poem “Judith,” which runs about 25 pages in my Dumbarton Oaks Library edition of the Beowulf Manuscript (with Anglo-Saxon text facing the modern English), contains all the standard fare of the epic category, save length. Should we fail to classify this as an epic simply because the first nine chapters have not come down to us and only 350 lines remain?

A true epic is less about length per se than the confluence of subject matter, theme, and tone. Many great modern English poets have written long poems that do not quite fit the bill: the hilarious satirical anti-epics of Byron and Pope; Tennyson’s melancholy Idylls of the King; and Wordsworth’s “Prelude” (part autobiography, part paean to Nature). As for long poems that do fit the bill, there have been a number of naïve epics written by individuals who lacked the souls of poets. Joel Barlow’s Columbiad and John Fitchett’s King Alfred, (which incidentally, at 130,000 lines, is the longest poem in the English language) are such dull examples. Voltaire’s La Henriade proves that the qualities which make a great prose writer and a great poet may not overlap.

The most recent examples I can think of involving canonical English poets who tried their hands at epic are Shelley and Keats; the latter’s Hyperion was promising but ultimately abandoned as “too Miltonic” and left incomplete at his untimely death, while Shelley’s Revolt of Islam (written in Spenserian stanzas) is undergirded by a radical revolutionary zeal that ultimately has a destabilizing effect, conflicting with the norms of the genre in which it was written.

So, what are we left with? To find a complete work of comparable grandeur and sublimity, one has to go back to Milton—and it is Milton, Mr. Sale acknowledges, who had a great impact on him as a young poet. Sale’s lines are polished and perfect, which places it a grade above the sprawling style and occasional descent into prose that characterizes John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet—sometimes cited as the best traditional epic poem written by an American (this is technically true, for the simple fact that there are no worthy competitors). It is precisely the attempt to revive sublimity in poetry, in contrast with the current cultural malaise of deconstruction and other -isms, that set HellWard apart and make it so distinctive in our times. The best epics that have been written were successful because they encapsulate the traditional values of their culture, rather than seeking to overthrow them. Mr. Sale himself pays homage to this fact in the introduction to Hellward, in which he discusses the importance of a poet’s underlying belief system, and the necessity that epic have a constructive philosophy rather than a destructive one.

True epic poems in the classical sense fall into two basic categories: they are either about (1) war, or (2) a journey. Virgil’s Aeneid combines both, as do the multi-plot Renaissance romances of Spenser and Ariosto that mix episodic wanderings with chivalric showdowns. HellWard falls into the second category, as should be evident from Sale’s reverence for Dante.

No less an authority than Joseph Charles Mackenzie, one of the foremost lyric poets writing today, has called James Sale “England’s finest living poet.” In this he was referring to Sale’s previous lyric verses and his mastery of the “smaller, tighter forms.” Mackenzie then goes on to cite Dante as an example of this mastery, if the terzain is taken as a basic unit of poetry. As Sale himself notes, HellWard is the first attempt to write a long poem in English using this form (aside from Shelley’s unfinished Triumph of Life), and he discusses its underutilization in our language, as well as his choice of it as a “brilliant format for driving forward a narrative.” Having a structure of terzains makes for a tight arrangement that requires fitting a lot of meaning into groupings of just three lines, while also employing this small unit of structure in the service of a longer work.

What can we say about a work that the author himself describes as a “continuation” to the Divine Comedy, arguably the greatest poem ever written? How could such a thing possibly measure up? Sale himself has no pretensions, saying that he merely took Dante as a model, and like all the great epic poets have done with the previous figures within their tradition, he reworks Dante. While Sale clearly owe a debt in the choice of rhyme-scheme, theme of the infernal journey, and the fact that Dante is a character, HellWard is by no means merely derivative of the great Florentine. Given that 700 years intervene between the two poets, we can expect to find a great deal that is different in their visions of Hell. It is a Hell that the reader can relate to, where circles are replaced with hospital wards. The torture is often psychological rather than physical (though this occurs too). Gone are the systematized divisions of Dante’s Roman Catholic vision that so often come off as somewhat bizarre to a modern audience, with Hell’s descending gradations of incontinence, violence, and fraud. Sale himself has Dante allude to this difference, and to the author’s view that the worst evils stem from errors of intellect which may be well-intentioned:

‘This modern world’, he grimaced, ‘truth to tell,’
Is not the same as Florence was back then;
It’s different, though stamped and marked as hell.

He paused, as if to weigh what that might mean.
‘We knew what evil was, and how it caught
Unwary souls; but here…you think you’re clean,

As if deleting wrong were done by thought,
As if enough opinions made wrong right,
As if my way cancelled truly we ought …’

Philip Sidney considered the epic or “heroical” genre the “most accomplished kind of poetry,” and in his Defense of Poesy defined the epic hero as one “stirs and instructs the mind” with moral doctrine, who “doth not only teach and move to a truth, but teacheth and moveth to the most high and excellent truth; who makes magnanimity and justice shine through all misty fearfulness and foggy desires…” While James Sale is not a conventional warrior like Achilles or Rinaldo, he does conform to Sidney’s definition of the hero-as-truth-seeker—and in this sense probably more so than certain of his ancient Greek counterparts like Odysseus (lying rogue and trickster), Jason (philandering scoundrel), or Achilles (glory hog).

Intellectual error is, for Sale, a hell of one’s own making. Before the poet even enters Hell proper in the second canto, the opening lines of the poem show us that we are actually already there:

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.

The next lines describe the chaos of war and revolutionary politics that defined so much of the twentieth century, from No-Man’s-Land to the Babel of progress. One might be reminded here of Paradise Lost, in which Milton simultaneously appropriates the martial values the Classical epic tradition and turns them on their head. One might also be reminded of Dante’s own political struggles to build a better Florence. But we are not dealing here with a war in heaven, nor with Guelphs versus Ghibellines, but with Godless and nightmarish events that have “built one tomb / Called planet Earth” and set the backdrop for the poet’s struggle with cancer in a hospital ward.

These very well could be the opening lines to a nihilistic postmodern narrative. But rather than giving into hopelessness, the poet instead invokes the muse Calliope:

Calliope come to me now, be here,
For I must tell how I came to that wild place
Where death is our doctrine, and twin despair.

Sale manages to put a striking twist on a standard epic convention by having Calliope’s surge of creative inspiration co-occur with his cancerous near-death experience, leading to an out-of-body sensation in which he has a vision of God and the cosmos. In a little more than a hundred lines, the poet manages to encompass the feeling of being “in the moment” in a tripartite coalescence of the biological, the literary, and the divine—and it is here at the end of the canto, at the point immediately preceding an entrance to Hell through “…a door, burning to drape upon / as if hanging, and hanging there my bed” (conveyed in a closing sentence spanning sixteen lines of marvelous grammatical complexity), that one realizes this is a poet of genius.

In good classical fashion, Sale harmonizes the twin pillars of Athens and Jerusalem that are both so central to the Western tradition. In addition to Calliope, other cantos feature Nemesis, Athena, Ares, Nimrod, and Apollo. As Dante himself brought together both Christian and pagan illustrations of the same fact and treated them as parallel, so do all these figures co-exist (though in subservience) to the One God—nor need one even believe in their literal existence to recognize their symbolic power.

The above-mentioned grammatical complexity is apparent throughout the work: colons, semicolons, and dashes are interspersed with enjambments to build barbed sentences of considerable acceleration, transcending the minimal poetic units of line and stanza to keep the narrative rushing along. In Canto 8, a sentence filled with figurative language rolls across eight terzains: Sale encounters an ex-neighbor “smouldering like a burnt-out coal” in an epic simile that transitions into a description of the wife he murdered as perched “beside his burning ear” in a manner “Not bird-like, but as bees, billion-eyed / and buzzing low…” In such cases, the poet becomes something of an Anti-Proust: instead of a languorous flaneur strolling along the arcade to echelons of subordinate clauses, stopping to glance at a shop window here and admire a patch of sky there, characters are inexorably propelled headlong through their own peculiar doom, and Mr. Sale’s mastery of the “smaller, tighter forms,” as J.C. Mackenzie noted, is put in the service of his equal mastery of a larger unit of structure.

This is not to say that the poem is long-winded; Sale is able to convey both the essence of a person’s character and their contrapasso in just a few lines, such as in the following description in Canto 4 of a former boss who put his interpersonal powers towards the service of his own egoistic self-promotion:

‘Bryan!’ I blurted out. He returned no glance.
His shoes held his gaze; I could not see why.
He spoke robotically, as one in trance,

As one using words whose words are empty.

After an exchange, Bryan resumes staring at his “bright” shoes, where he sees himself as “the peak and peacock of invention.” He imagines “his dues / In a perpetual cycle of willed intention” and makes distinctions as one who is

Of governing bodies supreme hierophant;
But now reflected in his own shoe-black
Only, the faintness of his own drab cult.

This whole scene has the air of an infernal parody of a comparable section in the Paradiso, where while ascending into the heavenly spheres, Dante sees that luminous celestial body, the sun, reflected in the eyes of Beatrice. It is notable that while seeing this imperfect reflection of a fatally imperfect man in his own shoe-gazing, the stanzas are full of imperfect rhymes: breaker/beaker/features; sight/height/weight; and cant/hierophant/cult. Various forms of near-rhyme are sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of the poem, a fitting aesthetic correspondence for the theme of the work. Some purists will disagree with such a choice, and admittedly, in order for my interpretation to remain valid, Sale would have to switch to more perfect rhymes in his forthcoming volume on Paradise. His choice of near-rhyme seems more a pragmatic choice and is reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers, who in her translation of the Divine Comedy employs this standard (furthermore, her epigraph at the beginning of the book seems to have provided the inspiration for Sale’s idea to write it.)

As the sublime has been defined by such philosophers as Burke and Kant as a pleasurable form of fear, causing the strongest emotions an individual can feel, it is no paradox to find that HellWard mixes beauty with terror, and manages to simultaneously evoke feelings of delight, revulsion, and empathy in the reader. Many of the scenes are full of real pathos. An example of this comes early on in Canto 2 when Sale, perhaps looking to outdo Dante’s encounter with his own great-great grandfather Cacciaguida in Paradise, inverts this filial homage by placing his own mother in Hell—who in a poignant detail, mistakes him for her other son Steven.

The poem is also, perhaps surprisingly, filled with touches of subtle humor (the idea of circles as hospital wards), and even satire. The latter mode is more evident in the later books when the figures Sale meets are not personal acquaintances, but politicians, poets, and philosophers who have gone astray. In Canto 9 we encounter the prime minister who led England into Iraq:

…the Bliar – ‘Phoney Tone’ –
Grinning and gawping, yet serious too, cool?

He thought so, sure, being Britannia’s own.

In Canto 10, Autocrats and dictators (featuring Hitler “…blasted into blown smithereens / Which held his semblance, figured in dead bones”) give way to contemporary British politicians. Most delightful of all, though, is Canto 11, where the poetasters lie. Here, the famous link between creativity and mental illness is given a literal expression as the bad versifiers whose writings are “More like graffiti than serious works” languish in states of madness, ironically crowned with laurel wreaths. Ginsberg (“Jinnsberg”) communicates through howls, and the narrator cannot understand what he is saying. Sale then encounters Nimrod himself, and we learn that Jinnsberg and his followers suffer from “Nimrod’s curse—”

The cause of more than war, something too subtle:
Confusing all the languages of the world,
Rendering Adam’s poetry fitful babble…

I then laughed out loud when encountering our next fraud:

I looked and saw Wilt Witless yawping hard
With sounds barbaric and untranslatably

Full, singing self with multitudes of words.’

Further on Sale encounters contemporary British laureates,

All ones appointed by judgments gone rotten,
For whom Apollo never shone, or spoke –
Allowed the true sublime to be begotten.

Sale at this point begins weeping with compassion for these fallen false bards, but Dante warns him against pity that is in this place “pointless and askew,” in a similar vein in which Virgil had once chastised Dante.

Throughout this essay I have focused largely on the doomed characters and their fitting punishments, though there is much more here than that. It is first and foremost a philosophical poem. And as intellectual error is the worst of sins, it is fitting that the final canto of the poem deals with damned philosophers. The pages of HellWard are filled with reflections on life and theology, often condensed into an aphoristic form. Consider Dante’s advice in Canto 12 on the importance of not swallowing false philosophies:

Strong food’s no use for a malnourished wretch;
Why gobble down and not discriminate,
Only to find what you consume’s too rich?

Or this bit later in the same canto:

…But wolves in sheep’s soft clothing
Exactly states what this realm’s all about,
For self-destruction comes from hard self-loathing.

Sale also does not occasionally shy away with sprinkling some vulgarity into his verses—for what is sublimity without some contrast with a visceral reaction of disgust? This is most evident when in the final canto we encounter a foul-mouthed woman who dismisses Sale as a “Nobody” and the “cock-sucking midget” of Dante; she then solicits Dante to “explore my fetid fig, / Then write a canto undermining men,” before attacking him. Based on her own account of herself as an Amazon who was killed by Achilles, she is apparently Penthesilea, though she is described by Dante as having a “sick philosophy” that “drew women from womanhood,” “misled so many, many millions,” and is finally named as “Leia Leer.” I suspect that here Sale has conflated Penthesilea with a modern feminist theorist, though if this hunch is correct, I have not yet been able to guess her identity.

My failure draws attention to another aspect of Sale’s work (which should be obvious by now): his vast erudition. Poetry is according to Sidney “of all human learnings the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity,” the original discipline from which all others flow, and in good fashion Sale infuses his poem with learned references from the bible, history, mythology, and literature—often compounded one on top of another to dizzying effect for the literary detective. As Sale has been writing for fifty years and has authored nearly as many books in numerous fields, ranging from poetry to business and organizational psychology to cultural criticism, he has much wisdom to draw upon, and he has distilled it all into this book—the masterpiece representing the summation of his life’s work. Honors to the autodidact who is able to catch all of these allusions. Despite the high level of scholarship and sophistication that went into this, though, it is never pedantic or dry, and rewards even a surface-level reading with an entertaining story. Sale is in this respect the antithesis of T.S. Eliot. Unlike with The Wasteland, reading HellWard does not require having a professor standing over your shoulder pointing out arcane trivia—even if you miss most of this stuff, there is more than enough schadenfreude to revel in.

This has not been an exhaustive analysis of the poem (only exhausting). More could be written on it, and surely will be. In championing James Sale as I have, though, I am confronted by an objection referenced to in the opening paragraphs of this essay. Where Dante and Milton could write great epics and have them embraced by their cultures by virtue of the universally shared values those cultures held, the author of an epic poem who lives in a declining half-literate, post-Christian, tribalistic West has no such hope—so the common argument might go. Thus, Sale has no hope of ever achieving the lasting fame of Dante or Milton—he is simply an obscure poet who accidentally emerged from a dying civilization that now cares nothing for poetry or his obsolete belief system, and this he will always remain.

This argument takes for granted a number of assumptions, however. The first thing to consider is the benefit of hindsight and the process of canonization. Dante’s paramount status in world literature was not immediate. Burckhardt tells us that Dante “strove for the poet’s garland with all the power of his soul” and longed to be coronated in the baptistery of San Giovanni (though he went to great lengths to emphasize fame’s emptiness in the Divine Comedy—and even to lecture Mr. Sale on this point in Canto 12 of his own poem). He never received his wish, however, and died uncrowned. The man who took his place, and the first person to receive the designation of poet laureate since the fall of the Roman Empire, was none other than—Albertino Mussato!

…Huh? Well, as Burckhardt describes it, he “enjoyed a fame which fell little short of deification.” Every year on Christmas Day all the most learned citizens of Padua marched down the streets in a “solemn procession” and surrounded his house, blowing trumpets and burning candles, to pay homage to him and offer him gifts.

Thus the vagaries of fame. The above description would seem to confirm Dante’s dismissal of it as empty, were not he himself the supreme embodiment of justly deserved intellectual glory. For Dante now ranks among the top three or four greatest poets of all time, while nobody has ever heard of Albertino Mussato. And when we realize that the Divine Comedy was not even first translated into English until 1802—nearly 500 years after it was written—we realize that large-scale acceptance involves a gradual build-up of reputation that can be centuries in the making.

Like all the best poets today, Mr. Sale is a relatively obscure figure, deeply respected among other poets but unknown to the larger culture. It is my belief, however, that he will eventually take his place in the pantheon….though as we have seen, this may take a while.

But perhaps not hundreds of years. As the figures crowned by the long, slow process of canonization threaten to be dethroned by the ignorance and vapidity of a single generation, so too there is a countermovement that resists this mindless revolution. The SCP is doings its part to change the trend of current tastes, and Albertino Mussato is a warning to contemporary poet laureates everywhere who are lauded for sociological rather than aesthetic reasons (this analogy is admittedly not fair to Mussato, who unlike terrible poets like Joy Harjo was an innovative writer). With the welcome decline of a degenerate academic culture, it is high time to sweep away the insufferable mediocrities who elevate social justice over criteria of real merit, and to again defend the moral doctrines which Sidney felt was at the heart of “that numberous kind of writing which is called verse.”

Epic poetry may have a significant role to play in this. Throughout history, ranging from the Iliad to the Mahabharata, epics have been cultural touchstones. I do not think it is going too far to say that a society without an epic to draw upon indicates a state of decay and ill health, as we have thrown off Milton as being no longer relevant to our lives. Today of course, we have prose epics that are largely taken from the realm of fantasy literature. Novels like the Lord of the Rings series are able to bridge the gap between peoples of different values and gain acceptance because they lack the cultural specificity (and the hard feelings that tend to accompany this) of a more historically rooted story. There is a certain emptiness, though, in the universal embracement of a completely imaginary construction, and this seems to be mirrored in the passing of popularity from Tolkien (a medievalist who steeped LOTR in allusions to great works of literature) to the more cynical middlebrow epic of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—in the end, the masses embrace such stories as one more piece of entertainment in their queue (so long as a film version of the book has been made).

The current mental and moral degeneracy so manifest now in the decline of the West cannot continue indefinitely. If we are to fall, the culture that rises to dominance after us (hopefully not a Chinese communist one) will need to build itself on positive values, as all rising civilizations have done, and it will look to prior models to do this. In drawing a thread from past to present in our tradition, James Sale’s HellWard offers a model for the future of what not to be.


Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.

(Guest Blog) Junji Ito and the spirals of hell

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 2010Junji 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.

–Joseph Sale (The Mindflayer), 2020

themindflayer.com

Images copyright © Junji Ito (2010). Courtesy of Viz Media, Uzumaki Deluxe Edition, 2019

HELL, PSYCHOLOGY, & TED BUNDY

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.

Poetry, Beauty and the Modern Era

One interesting question is ‘why poetry, specifically?’ I am currently writing an ‘epic’ called The English Cantos, and I have chosen to write my epic in terza rima. There are many forms of storytelling in the modern world, so why write poetry, when in real terms, it is such a niche interest? Surely a novel-series or a screenplay might have broader appeal? My son, in fact, has written an entire blog series on unusual epics of the modern era, from anime to television. However, I think there is still massive, in some ways untapped value in writing poetry, and I would encourage anyone reading this to do it!

Why? Let me outline this for you based on my personal experience.

It is not merely for the sake of tradition. In fact, when all is said and done, I am not a very traditional person. There is the added pull that terza rima is Dante’s chosen form, my own epic being modelled on his opus: The Divine Comedy. Therefore, the English Cantos might also be read as a continuation of The Divine Comedy, just as Virgil’s Aeneid seems a continuation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante’s own work a continuation of The Aeneid. Each text engages with the one prior to it, and in some places re-write their ideas. Virgil, for example, portrays Odysseus (called Ulysses in the Latin) as a deceiver and traitor, rather unlike the conflicted, intelligent, but ultimately good hero of Homer’s duology. It should also be noted that terza rima is an under-utilised poetic form in English poetry, with very few attempts to write narrative using it. As I outline in the introduction to my collection Divine Comedies:

Perhaps the most famous example and use of terza rima being Shelley’s Triumph of Life, which interestingly is unfinished. In particular, I realised that the form provided me with the key to creating compelling narrative: blank verse is great for narrative, but Milton’s done it. Second greatest epic in the English language? Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but the Spenserian stanza for narrative purposes is clunky and slow, relatively speaking, and lends itself to gorgeous picture-making (so Keats’ Eve of St Agnes exploits the form superbly – it is a narrative but one of a richly, static kind). But perhaps terza rima could supply the necessary form to sustain the long poem.’

But there is actually a deeper reason for my choice of poetry in general. That is, beauty.

I would say ‘everywhere’ in our modern world, but perhaps it is fairer to say ‘almost everywhere’, we see the deconstruction of beauty. Whether it be the dismissal of spiritual values, the undermining of real art and culture in favour of what can turn profits or sensationalise, or even just in the architecture around us. Many people, arguably, live bleaker lives now than they did in the Middle Ages, which is saying something. Depression and suicide are at an all-time high, alongside addictions and compulsive behaviours. Meanwhile, people cling to any current trend, opinion, or voice shouting louder than the rest, in the hope that if they follow it will give their lives meaning.

We are in many ways a floundering species, and I believe it is primarily because of the false prophets of secularism. We are told we don’t need God, that we can create our own value-system, our own morality, our own purpose. The classics had a word for this: ‘hubris’. We all need external help and guidance from time to time, whether that be from the people we love, an expert, or the contrivances of fate! To appoint ourselves as the gods of our own universe is to say we need nobody but ourselves. Ironically, that is in the first instance to go backwards and re-live the Tower of Babel myth and all its resulting confusion (and isn’t confusion a good word for the state of the contemporary world?); and secondly, it is to expose our own inadequacies as we experience the fragmentation that results from everyone being their own ‘god’. Never before has there been so much transmission, and so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talking to ourselves, while no-one listens.

We are told, too, that technology is going to solve all of our problems, and yet after 100 years or so of technological revolution, it has only brought us closer to extinction, distanced us from the natural world, and deprived many people of meaning and fulfilment. I’m not a Luddite. I like technology and use it. But, it is the idolatrous worship of technology that I find worrying and the blind sense that we are endlessly ‘progressing’ to some utopia, somewhere. Again, the ancients (Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, to mention three venerable cultures) thought exactly the opposite: the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in or about to enter the Iron Age. Regression, therefore, not progression. Whether they are right in their predictions, I leave to you.

Accompanying secularism, and the utilitarianism that is so often associated with that, is a kind of ugliness. I mentioned the architecture of modern buildings: that is a start. But it is also in the books we read; we find poetry bereft of any form or beauty, but then praised as being ‘stark’, ‘clear’, ‘unflinching’, ‘bold’, ‘honest’ and such like – as if the mere act of regurgitating negativity is in itself laudable. Ugliness and horror have their place in literature and art, but they must be assimilated as part of a greater whole. To use a word Clive Barker loved: they must be reconciled. The same story is true in so many realms. In popular ‘music’ we find a single bar of electronic beats looped for a song’s duration, where once there would have been artfully crafted percussion.

I should add that I do not wish to sound like an old man grumbling. There are of course exceptions to these observations; in music, for example, young bands or musicians who are branching out. I listened to Mumford & Sons’ recent album Delta, and there is a track on it called ‘Darkness Visible’ which extensively quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the title itself being part of it). It is blissfully inventive music.In the realm of independent publishing,I read a story by David Hartley (published in a short story collection Shallow Creek) written in iambic pentameter! It depicts a disturbed lighthouse keeper talking via radio to a person he believes to be William Shakespeare; gloriously creative, and beautifully written. Like I said, there are exceptions, but one has to notice the overwhelming trends, the tendencies, and what people in authority are, more and more, advocating and supporting. And when we say, advocating and supporting, we mean where the money and the ‘reputation’ goes.

But poetry is a counter to all of this, particularly poetry which has shape, form, metre, rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry is about beauty, creating it even from tremendous pain. Perhaps one of the best examples one could give of this is Wilfred Owen. Despite the horrors of war he faced, his lyricism is beautiful. Tolkien might also be cited as an example of this. He fought in the Somme, one of the worst battles in human history, and yet he emerged from it with profound spirituality, courage, optimism, and beauty in his work. We must remember Tolkien was as much a poet as a prose-author. Intriguingly the ‘modernists’ who have defined so much of modern writing: the T. S. Eliots, the Virginia Wolfes, the Ezra Pounds, did not have any frontline experience of the war! Instead, they had a lot of opinions. To put this at its strongest: Owen and Tolkien faced the profoundest horrors of this life and produced literature for the soul and deep beauty; Eliot, Woolf and Pound were all armchair critics who simply faced domestic ‘terrors’ and most of their work is – in varying degrees here – highly negative.

One of the arguments against traditional or ‘formal’ poetry is that it is too restrictive, but as is always the case, the greatest creativity and best inventions come from restriction. In America, the short story is highly valued specifically for this reason, and in some ways the ability to write a good 2000 – 3000 word short story is considered a higher art form than a novel! The sonnet is a case in point, too. In the British tradition, the sonnet was once considered the sine qua non of a good poet. Could you write a 14 liner that would move the soul? Poetry is one of the most profound ways to create beauty, precisely because of the restrictions it places on the writer. Like music, there are only so many chords, and only so many chords that work in combination, and only so many rhythms, but how can we then generate something new within these frameworks? One might even stretch the point to make a commentary on society here. We want unrestricted lives: to see as many people as we like, travel as far as we want, eat as much as we like, watch as much TV as we like, binge, binge, binge. None of this is truly healthy, or, indeed, beautiful. Invariably, the greatest beauty derives from restraint, and the deepest emotion comes from holding back.

We should abandon our modern impulse to operate ‘freely (which is not ‘free’ at all but actually chaos), and instead focus on making beauty with disciplined control. By harnessing true poetic techniques and the deep spirituality, we might yet create wonders.