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.