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! 


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.

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.

The Song of Orpheus

When I was a child I was fascinated by myths, and especially those concerning the underworld, what we sometimes call journeys into hell. It is difficult to account for why these sort of stories appealed to me, although now – at the later end of my life – it’s all very clear. Having been to hell – my 3 months hospitalization and battle with cancer, the source of inspiration for The English Cantos themselves – then obviously my fascination was a sort of premonition of my own descent.

All cultures have stories of heroes who descend into hell; it seems to be one of the most universal stories. I am fascinated by all of these versions, but some of the most intriguing to me are the myths of the Ancient Greeks, not in the least for the psychological realities they reveal. Many of their heroes stormed hell – Heracles, Theseus, Odysseus to mention only three, three who returned. Of course, some – like Pirithous – failed to make it back.

But of all the heroes who explored hell, the greatest – the one who descended furthest – was ironically not a great warrior at all: the poet and musician Orpheus went deeper into the Underworld than even Heracles, and did it through his music and poetry alone. What is the significance, then, of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?

First, the desire to enter hell arose not from a compulsion for heroics but because his beloved wife, Eurydice, had died as a result of a snake bite. Thus Orpheus resolved to enter hell in order to bring his wife back to life.

In facing all the dangers and perils of hell, Orpheus’ solution was the same: to play his music and sing his song. So Charon, the ferryman, rowed him across the Styx without the obligatory payment; so Cerberus, the three headed dog that was virtually impossible to subdue, except by Heracles, was charmed into sleeping by the music; so all perils and obstacles yielded to the music. Till at last, Orpheus stood in the very throne room of Hades, lord of death and hell, himself.

There, before Hades and his queen, Persephone, Orpheus reached the climax of his song and struck the notes. It is said for the first and only time Hades wept – tears of molten tar. But more remarkable still, being in the throne room itself meant that the sound within its box vibrated throughout the whole domain of hell itself. All in hell heard the song of Orpheus.

Thus it was that the damned, Ixion at his wheel, Tantalus striving for his water, and Sisyphus fruitlessly and endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill only to find it roll back down each time, suddenly froze. They heard the music and their pain lifted. Their dull animal instincts to repeat and repeat their pointless activities – like rats in a maze – gave way to the return of human cognition.

For a moment they experienced relief and were enthralled by beauty – the beauty of Orpheus’ singing.

And then it ended – and the damned returned to their endless damnation. Hades was grateful for the entertainment and said he would grant whatever Orpheus wished for; Orpheus requested the return of the life of Eurydice. This was granted but with one tiny condition:  that she follow him some twenty paces behind and that he must not turn to look at her before reaching sunlight again. Orpheus eagerly agreed.

So Orpheus retraced his happy steps, knowing Eurydice was right behind him, following him back to life. But then tragedy struck – within sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel leading up to the world, Orpheus needed to check she was still there. He turned, looked, and even as he did so her form, which had gained substantiality on the way up, now began to de-compose; she waved one last despairing wave, and was gone, forever. His journey had achieved nothing, and he returned alone to the world of sunshine above ground.

But had he achieved nothing? It seems to me two important lessons emerge from the tale. The first is by asking the question, why did he fail? The answer is clear: he failed because of his unbelief – his lack of faith – he did not take the god at his word. The god, who was delighted with the song and the singer, had no reason to lie, and yet Orpheus in turning refused to believe him.

And this is our problem: we do not believe the god who speaks within us – what Jung called the Self – the deeper part of us that incorporates the unconscious and the archetypes. We rationalise and we think our egos know all the truth – and then as we disbelieve the god we are struck down with our own specific tragedies.

The second lesson, however, is far more optimistic. It is to contemplate how hell itself began to turn into heaven as the song was sung; and that reminds us that the universe – the uni (one) – verse (song or poem) is precisely that. All life, all joy is in the music, the pattern, the structure that underpins all that is. And so, even hell is transformed if we can sing our own song.

Are you Orpheus? Are you singing your song – being your own poem? Or are you someone who will die with their music still unsung and inside them? The message is clear: get singing – who knows – you may well rescue your own Eurydice from the depths.