The following are excerpted from James Sale’s upcoming book Divine Comedies.


Exit from Hell

I did well in life. But everything is real in Hell Dante, Canto 29

The exit from Hell is always difficult –Colonel Percy Harrison Faucett

Surely, the way is simple, I did well,
So why stay here, it is so difficult?
I know what I think (less clear what I felt)
But does it matter, for I am in Hell?

There is so much, if you stay, I can tell:
Reality bent – that’s hardly my fault –
For alchemy means heat, and heat will melt,
And these false metals were mine, mine to sell.

It seemed back then my Midas touch was gel:
Truth was one thing; in my hands smoothed, a cult.
Is that so bad? Consider: my results –
What I produced was so believable.

Ingenious, that word tolls like a bell,
Reminding me of powers; I was no dolt,
Needed no-one, had no need to consult;
Perplexed only by how at last I fell.

With such success wouldn’t you? So, what spell
Was it undermined and called me to a halt?
I clear my mind – or try to – with a jolt
Images crash like waves on a gutted shell

And horrors sound like rabid yelps and yells
Absorbing senses in total tumult;
And one emotion, denied before, guilt
Bites into mind and mind cannot quell.

The way out must be short and I must will
Reality can be changed, or it ought
To be – for that is what I stood for, fought.
One push more, mind over matter, uphill

Then bursting over there and free to dwell
Exactly where my energies lift and vault –
Oh! To believe all this, my soul exults,
Whilst gravity holds me, holds down in Hell.



Then he hid in the fire that refines them  Purgatory XXVI, 148, Dante

We have seen threadbare souls, scarce out of hell:
One with a thousand sins stacked up against him,
But then one tear, one cry to Mary – well?
Then all is well; no descent, he can climb.

And as we weave the Mountain’s side, ascend,
Dark circles recede, a-head’s the promise –
So we toil, step by step, bend by bend,
Some fairer land for sure before us lies

Where every crime is cancelled. Who’d believe?
And why? Don’t we all feel it? Certain guilt,
For what we’ve done, do, further yet conceive?
But still these footsteps, one by one, still tilt

Inevitably towards that place where
The slime’s all gone and, naked, we’re before fire:
We tremble because we know God is near
And something too terrible to desire,

Although in one sense closer than our own self.
Stop! No further – but Daniel at that point smiled;
Something deeper preoccupied, something else,
And everything he’d known was less, was filed

Away, because only hidden in flame
Could justice that weighed stars be lit and shown.
There, mortal man at last might scorch his shame;
There, see God’s point burning as if one’s own.


Let Us Descend

“Let us descend into the sightless world”  Dante, Inferno 6.13

Let us descend into the sightless world,
Said the poet, sighing, and fearful too;
Who’d go down there willingly? Without faith,
There’d be no return, no embrace of light,
No knowledge ever of what is real; true.

Let us descend into the sightless world,
Said the poet, but his face, wan and pale,
Was one becoming less human, more wraith,
Where soul is dimmed, where only dark is bright,
Where each dull act repeats, repeats to fail.

Let us descend into the sightless world,
Said the poet, delaying, risk-averse.
There’d been a time, once, terrors merely mocking;
But then too much life spent above the ground
Meant knowing blessings also drain their course.

Let us descend into the sightless world,
The poet said, sighing, at last his fate
Fully upon him, or was it unlocking
The destiny he’d sought, alas now found?
He made one step down, and still to hesitate.



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41 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    “Refinement” is a beautiful piece, touching as it does on the punishment of Arnaut Daniel in Purgatory. It is, I think, the only place in the Divine Comedy when Dante writes in a language other than Italian.

    • Joseph Charles McKenzie

      Oh yes, Dr. Salemi, these verses of James Sale bring me back to my philology days at the university when we studied the obligatory trobar clus. Speaking of which, we are still in awe of your translation of Marcabru in this very venue, as this latter is also a representative of that style that influenced Dante so very much. Let’s face it, the great poets of old were all cosmopolitan—Catholic in every way.

  2. James Sale

    Thank you both for your kind comments, and I especially glad that you, Professor Salemi, found it ‘beautiful’ – a word that is particularly important to me; for this ‘one thing I have desired: to see the beauty of the Lord’. I also used the name ‘Daniel’ rather than Arnaut to get an oblique reference to that other Daniel and friends in the blazing fire. You are right, too, in his use of Provencal, though of course Dante does pepper his work with Latin quotations also. I ought to add that whilst this poem derives from a deep source of belief within my self, I am not actually a Roman Catholic, though I am extremely sympathetic and respectful of Catholicism. Indeed, my visit to Ravenna last year – and the grave of Dante and the various and astonishing basilicas there – prompted me finally to leave my Quaker membership and start attending a more traditionally Christian church. However, I hope the poem speaks to all who like poetry, and even more to those who like poetry and understand that all human beings are perpetually in a state of judgement. Judgement is inherent in our condition; indeed, we are judging each other, consciously or otherwise, all the time. This very forum provides an opportunity for more judgement(s). We can see and feel that (as we judge ourselves on an ongoing basis) whether we believe in God or not; for myself I do believe in God, and that is why Dante’s vision becomes more and more coherent to me. Thanks again. I am so looking forward to meeting you in person in June.

    • Joseph Charles McKenzie

      Dear Mr. Sale,

      You and I have both of us had the great and singular privilege of visiting the Città dei Mosaici. I remember going to the little market not far from Dante’s monument to purchase some roses which I then placed there among the others.

      Charlemagne, when he saw the splendors of Ravenna—although it had ceased by that time to be the powerful exarchate it was during the Byzantine empire—vowed that he would make Achen a copy of it. There is nothing quite like San Vitale in all the world.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    I’m a bit perplexed. The comments of our two Josephs fly, of course, a little bit over my head. But more than anything I wonder what your metrical plan might have been for any of these poems; I can’t even resolve them into a regular syllabic scheme. I’m not saying that I think these were bad poems; I’m just saying that their architecture is difficult to analyze. In my own writings I tend to be very strict — compensation perhaps for lapses of judgment in my deep past — and I assume that it is not your intention to disguise free verse as formal poetry. (If I am wrong, then you have done a bad job of it.) None of us are beyond reproach, and I would just like to approach your verse in a manner congruent with what you hope the approach of a reader should and will be.

    • James Sale

      Hi CB – thank you for your thoughtful response, which is – since it is about metrics – exactly what the SCP should be discussing, debating and taking soundings on. I think I would reply in two ways. First, the overview. This would be that what constitutes a classical or formalist poem is not only dependent on the use of meter. The three main features might be alliteration, rhyme and meter; and three other features might be stanzaic structure, allusion and theme. My point here is that meter alone does not necessarily define whether a poem is classical: medieval alliterative poetry does not conform to our meters and, conversely, post-modernist nonsense often does use stanzaic breaks (as if four lines constituted a ‘verse’, whereas they are purely paragraph substitutes). And Paradise Lost famously eschewed rhyme. So I would not put an over-reliance on meter as the defining quality, though I agree with you, I suspect, that for the very greatest poetical effects meter (or some rhythmic pulse) is almost inevitable.

      As a sidebar here, and before tackling your insightful question head-on, the danger of an overemphasis on meter is the production of doggerel. We have, fortunately, on these pages several poets, and especially Joseph Salemi (whom I have reviewed at length), who are consummate masters at using meter without it becoming repetitive or doggerel; but it is a real danger and it requires a very high level of ability to avoid it.

      So to answer your question directly: I am attempting to use traditional forms and meters but without being strait-jacketed, so that meter dictates sense rather than the other way round. Also, the poet of the C20th I most admire is WB Yeats who seems to have managed to use meter, and yet create a style that seemed almost natural, almost normal, as if he were speaking to people directly. You can hear Yeats speak in that way that Wordsworth commended: “He is a man speaking to men” (or person speaking to persons). To that end, then, the syntax and diction must be flexible and very carefully chosen.

      Clearly, you the reader, and every other reader, must be the ultimate judge of how successful I have or have not been. And I would not want to comment too exhaustively on my own work, since that would be egotistical in the extreme. But to take the first stanza of the first poem (since it comes first!), we have:

      Surely, the way is simple, I did well,
      So why stay here, it is so difficult?
      I know what I think (less clear what I felt)
      But does it matter, for I am in Hell?

      We have, I think, a five stress, basic iambic line:

      SUREly, the WAY is SIMple, I did WELL,

      This is a straight iambic line with a trochaic inversion in the first foot. The second line is:

      a. So WHY stay HERE, it IS so DIFFicult?

      And here is our first difficulty: how does one scan that line? Perhaps it is better scanned as –

      b. So WHY stay HERE, it is SO DIFFicult?

      In a. by reading it as straight iambic we get a kind of extra emphasis on the unstressed ’-cult’, so that it seems to follow the pattern and create a weak fifth stress; but if we take the more natural reading, then we get a pyrrhic, spondee, then further pyrrhic substitution, and so end up one stress deficient! There are, then, two ways reading the line – in my view. And this creates a metrical reading with a counterpoint, which in some sense is mimetic. One of my – and every child’s! – favourite poetic devices is onomatopoeia, where sound reflects sense, but this is a specialised form of the more general purpose of poetry which is mimesis or to be mimetic. A great example, because it is so metrically correct, would be Alexander Pope’s lines:

      When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
      The line too labors, and the words move slow;
      Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
      Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

      Here diction and metrics conspire to be mimetic, but notice especially in the final line – an alexandrine – that there is, even in Pope an anapaest substitution for the iambic; for Flies O’ER the unBENDING CORN – ‘the unBEND-‘ is not an iambic beat.

      Thus, I would argue the ‘difficulty’ of my line reflects the choice of the reading of it. If we move to the third line, we have:

      I KNOW what i THINK (less CLEAR what i FELT)

      we have the 10 syllable line still, but two anapaests have replaced the iambs, and we are a real stress short; we are deficient in a stress, but what am I describing at that point? The absence of my ‘felt’ state – something missing in what I feel, so mimetically a stress goes missing.
      Finally, the last line:

      But DOES it MATTer, FOR i AM in HELL?

      The iambic pentameter reasserts itself as we reach – in this stanza – one certainty: I am in hell. The ‘I am’ could be read as a trochee, but I would probably put the emphasis on ‘am’.

      Possibly like you, CB, I am very suspicious of theories which may sound intellectually grand but which do not deliver the results I expect. So I repeat: my justifications may not be valid for you or any other reader, but in so far as I am a poet, then I am trying to write with technical concerns at the forefront of my writing, but not necessarily to be visible to the reader. Technique that draws attention to itself can often thereby misdirect the reader away from the real emotional centre of a work.

      I now see that Evan Mantyk has kindly posted a defence of some of what I do and I heartily agree with his sentiments, and I hope this expands his points further. And I hope to read more of your work in due course CB.

      • C.B. Anderson

        James, I thank you for your long reply. I don’t think it immodest for a poet to dwell at length on his own work if someone has tugged his sleeve. I will try to keep an open mind about what you have written above, but I think that perfect meter (with the usual allowance for legitimate substitutions), sense, mood and feeling can be accomplished simultaneously. It just takes some work. (And I must refer again to Richard Wilbur, whose accomplishments in this regard are impeccable.) Unlike you, except for a handful of his most famous poems (e.g. “Sailing to Byzantium”), I don’t care much for W.B. Yeats. In fact I thought his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was so vapid that I wrote a parody of it (“The Rakes Smile When Gin Is Free”) which was published in the British e-journal called ANGLE. Scansion, I think you will agree, is partly objective and partly subjective, but I always attempt to lead the reader down inevitable pathways, and perhaps I am beating a horse that never existed, but, so far, no one has accused me of writing doggerel. We could argue about whether a good limerick should be written in pure anapests or amphibrachs, but either way, 99.9% of limericks are doggerel, which is why we enjoy them and find them amusing. This is only to say that meter is a useful convention, ignored or utilized at the poet’s discretion. As for the Muse: Yes, I have had that transcendent experience, one that I can’t always turn on, but one that I can always turn off.
        It’s always good communicating with a man of faith, in this world dominated by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

  4. Evan Mantyk

    Dear Mr. Anderson,

    I can only offer my imperfect analysis. Those with more wisdom on the matter or perhaps the poet himself could respond better.

    All three poems I read as what I would call a pentameter, meaning that there are five hard beats in each line. Generally speaking, the meter and rhyme are loose, but this is done in service of conveying a specific emotional feeling in a mode of elevated clarity, as well as to connect with a larger narrative idea, the larger idea being Mr. Sale’s themed publication Divine Comedies. In the same way blank verse consistently drops the rhyme to create a certain voice and advance certain priorities, these poems consistently drop the strict iambic pentameter and strict rhyme. In writing stricter verse one may be required to reword thoughts and get overly into the mechanics, sapping the poem of its original emotional impact that the poet wants to convey more directly to the reader or listener. This kind of poetry places more emphasis on the emotional impact while still adhering to and utilizing the great traditions of poetry (rhyme, meter, alliteration, and so forth) and the inherent appreciation for discipline and beauty that they foster.

    Is this an argument that could be hijacked in service of the emotional mess of free verse? Potentially, but I would argue the exquisite, stricter verse of poets such as yourself and the traditional, expressive verse of poets like Mr. Sale form a complete system that rejects the stupidity and ugliness that is generally found in modernism.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      The most destructive error of modernism is that the poet is the organizing principle by which the elements of versification convey thoughts and emotions.

      In Catholic poetry such as Dante’s, the organizing principle is not the poet, whose status in the order of causality is merely instrumental, but rather a superordinate principle by which the illumination of faith draws substance from history, doctrine, scripture, poetic tradition, and so forth.

      By the time we are talking about “how the poet uses versification to convey his thoughts and emotions”—be the implicit judgment ever so favorable or ever so negative—we no longer have anything at all to do with the order that Dante occupies, either psychologically or spiritually or intellectively, but have altogether stepped out of that realm.

      Put in another way, the superordinate principle of Dante’s work is contemplation, which is an operation of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost redounding upon the mind of the poet through grace, with grace attained by the divinely established means of grace which we call the Sacraments.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Evan, I thank you for your reply. My thought is that if so much has been “dropped,” then how is one able to tell the difference between formal and faux verse. As I said above to Mr. Sale, there is no good reason that all of these worthy goals cannot be accomplished at once. I can think of no examples where attention to “mechanics” has sapped a poem of “emotional impact.” In fact, I think it is more obvious that well constructed meter is better able to drive home a point. It hits the nail on the head, so to speak.

      • Joseph Charles McKenzie

        Without an ontologically operative, superordinating principle, a poet is left precisely where the modernists left him in the 20th century: to himself.

        In other words, I stand with C.B. Anderson in this particular instance, because our ramshackle “classical poetry movement” lacks even those fundamentals which prior ages possessed in abundance. We are in nowhere-ville starting all over again from the beginning and not really doing such a great job of it, with very rare exceptions.

        Whether one values the traditions English prosody, or whether one chooses to discard them, in whatever instance one discards them, is absolutely and irrevocably tied to one’s vision of the world.

        In Mr. Sale’s defense, let me say that he is operating from a framework which clearly allows for the kinds of departures under discussion.

  5. James Sale

    Thank you Mr Mackenzie, what you are discussing here is very important, and whilst I would not fully agree with you on everything, the main point you mention is that the self in modernism has become too central to the whole poetic enterprise. I am of course (from my previous posts) very favourably disposed to the Catholic church and to Dante, but as a metaphor I prefer to use that old fashioned word, the Muse. The Muse possesses the poet and so the poem is written; this possession is not ego-driven. However, each individual has a constitution, or personality, which refract this seemingly external light. In the same way the divinely inspired scriptures have this quality: inspired by God (the ultimate source or Muse), but stylistically some aspect of the individual is apparent. So no-one would think the writer of John’s gospel was the same person as the writer of Mark’s.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Dear Mr. Sale,

      It seems that the framework “muse/enthusiasm/refraction” is that which I have encountered most commonly here and just about everywhere else. Enthusiasm, which is etymologically to be possessed by a god, does not rescue the poet from the self, as his god may be merely the usual “god within.” There is no way of knowing under such a framework if the god in question is not merely the poet, as when Chesterton remarks “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” In which case the light being refracted is no light at all.

      The Greek notion of possession by the muse is unilateral. It is entirely other in Christianity where the divine Possessor is also possessed.

      I could go on and on. The muse, for example, does not sanctify. The pagan system is closed upon itself, as the divine Word is neither mirrored or present in the terminus of inspiration such that the external operation of the Trinity, which is an overflowing of the internal operations among the Persons, diffuses charity to the poet’s audience.

      Also, the framework allows for no distinction between inspiration and revelation (one of the errors of the Reformation). When we speak of the Evangelists, we are not speaking of mere poets.

      This is one of the causes of the famous Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes that took place under the influence of Bossuet and Charles Perrault. The “modernes” had gradually grown tired of the classicizing poetic establishment, represented by Boileau, with its withering insistence on imitation, its tedious treatises on versification, its increasingly shallow humanism, as if poetry were merely skin deep.

      With the publication of Corneille’s “L’Imitation de Jésus-Christ” and dramas like “Polyeucte,” the deadening framework of classicism could no longer account for the greatest literary achievements of the Grand Siècle which, from the comedies of Molière to the writings of Saint Jean Eudes, had manifested a vibrant resurgence of great Christian literature.

      An interesting development in the Querelle, on the part of the Modernes, was the attention they gave to the “merveilleux chrétien”—an entire aspect of poetry the humanists of Malherbe’s generation had successfully suppressed.

      In other words, muses and enthusiasms and “les exemplaires grèques” and the new middle-class humanism had become the appanage of stilted ideal reducing poetry to a heap of rules,criticism to so many meaningless debates on versification.

      The superannuated humanism of Racine had filtered down into the bourgeoisie to become a caricature of itself, as we see in Molière’s “Précieuses Ridicules.”

      I see this same deadening process taking place today in the so-called “classical poetry movement.”

      • C.B. Anderson

        J.C., though I appreciate the scholarship that informs your position on these matters, I am still not quite sure where you are coming from or where you are headed. Your poetry is finely wrought and tightly spun, and I really don’t give a damn whether or not it comes from a place that accords with the Holy Sacraments. It is your choice to view your work as emanating from such a lofty sphere, and I have no problem with that. In fact, I am more sympathetic with that point of view than you might suspect. The Greek idea of a governing Muse responsible for inspiration may well be an imperfect representation of the actual truth of the matter in a Christian sense, but as a metaphor it is perfect. Though it is true that the writers of the Gospels were not exactly poets, it is also true that the Gospels themselves are somewhat fictive artifacts written by persons who could not possibly have been eyewitnesses to the events they described. That I happen to believe that these accounts embody undying truth in no way means that I have succumbed to literalism. So give the ancient Greeks a break; after all, the Church for centuries held Aristotle to be the final arbiter on matters pertaining to physical Nature, even though no sane person today believes he knew what the hell he was talking about. The Muse, the Holy Spirit — just labels for an ancient process that even to this day we struggle to understand, but which we apprehend directly.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Some of the difficulty being discussed here is due to a tendency on the part of strict formalists (all of us) to fall into the error of reading with a Platonic ideal in mind of what iambic pentameter should be. I’ve been criticized sometimes for beginning an i-5 line with a choriamb, or for having more than ten syllables, or for slipping into non-iambic feet, or by persons who refuse to accept a line where the natural elisions or glides of spoken English are unmarked. I find it disturbing that here at the SCP there are some poets who still persist in using the eighteenth-century practice of editing out the unpronounced “e” in a past-tense verb suffix with an apostrophe; or who insist that every noun be read with all of its orthographically marked letters being pronounced, even when those letters are mere survivals of long-dead pronunciation. (You don’t have to write “talk’d” — we all know how it is pronounced — and you don’t have to read the word “sovereign” as “SOV- er- rain,” since we all know that it is pronounced SOV-rin). Trying to pronounce English in exact accordance with its spelling always leads to absurdities.

    As for the organizing principle question, one doesn’t even have to see it from the strictly Catholic point of view that Mr. MacKenzie has expressed. It’s always been acknowledged, as far back as the ancient world, that something impersonal guides the serious poet, who is himself merely the conduit through which a higher force speaks. Yes, this truth can be abused and twisted by Romanticism and Modernism into the worship of individual “genius” and radical “subjectivity” and immanent “creativity.” But the deepest truth of all is that, at the profoundest level, your self is rooted in a transcendent Self.

    • James Sale

      Thank you Professor Salemi: I like the use of your word ‘impersonal’ – exactly. And of course your final sentence is spot-on. One of my favourite metaphors of all is from the Odyssey: Scylla and Charybdis. To err too far to the self or too far the other way leads one to ruin. It’s a strange and paradoxical course one has to steer as a human and as a poet.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Yeah, Joe, I think it goes like this: The path to truth is straight and narrow, but the roads to error are manifold. I understand your point about false Platonic ideals, but I have no reliable guide to what acceptable variations might consist of. Sometimes I grok them, but at other times I feel as if I were confronted with utter chaos. Perhaps that’s all my fault.

      Your remark about editing out the unpronounced “e” in the past tense suffix really hit home for me. It’s as though some people don’t actually speak the language they speak. I dislike equally the practice of using a grave accent over that same “e” to cause it to be pronounced — what a stupid, incompetent device! The most common example might be “winged.”

      • C.B. Anderson

        Further, Joe, it has always struck me as inane (bordering on insane) that many writers insist on abbreviating “until” with “’til”
        since “till” (at least according to the dictionaries I have at my disposal) affirm that “till” is a perfectly good word which simply means “until.”

    • Joseph Charles McKenzie

      I would go even further with your thought, Dr. Salemi.

      A poet who is not operating from the perspective of fides divina et catholica really should, as Mr. Sale has had the integrity of doing, simply go ahead and stay with whatever metaphor/framework he is actually using, call it “the muse,” the “Great Spirit,” or “the Universe talking to me” and so forth. This is at least honest—a great help for those wishing to understand the poet.

      The question is really for the reader, after all:

      Is a modern-sounding verse commentary on Dante, composed by one who is not fluent in Dante’s dialect or languages, and who states that he does not possess the fundamentals of faith from which the very object of his commentary arises, really to be valued and, if so, to what extent?

      The reason we still read Ortega y Gassett’s commentary on Quixote, is because of what this great philosopher actually shares with Cervantes, intellectively, spiritually, and in every other way.

      • James Sale

        JCM – your point has some validity but is not entirely convincing as a rule for composition. It would mean, taking it to its extreme, than anyone writing about anyone else, or any philosophy, would need to be completely identified with it in order to write about it. This seems absurd. My own son, a novelist, recently was criticised by a gay person because he had had the temerity to include a gay character in his fiction: what, the gay person asserted, could he know about how a gay person ‘felt’? My son answered this question more than adequately, but the point is: consider Shakespeare – could he write compellingly about Macbeth and yet not be a mass murderer himself? Or, could he, as is generally acknowledged, be one of the greatest writers ever to depict the emotions of women and yet not be a woman himself? The point is: the essence of being a writer, and poet specifically, is to have that imaginative and emotional range whereby one is able to enter into the life of others and fully ‘realise’ what that means. Indeed, the lives, the philosophies and religions can be entirely fictitious, as say in Tolkien, but we enter into them as we read the text. Of course, the knowledge you advocate can be a wonderful and empowering thing, but we must not forget that erudition, particularly of a profound type, can lead to pedantry and the dead hand of writing whereby nothing comes alive but all the facts are there. Fortunately, I can truly say, your own poetry does not suffer from that – you are imaginatively alive. But we have to give scope for others to come alive, perhaps, from another direction. The same is true in another arena: acting. Surely, we do not believe that we have to be LGBT to act as an LGBT in a Hollywood film? If we did, then we would have abandoned the whole notion of what acting really was or what it meant.

      • Joseph Charles McKenzie

        Dear Mr. Sale,

        Yes, your answer will ultimately be one of many possible answers. Another might be something like: “What an interesting perspective/project!”Or it will go the other direction: “I’ll just stay with Dante himself, thank you very much.” And everything in between.

  7. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    As Mr. Sale mentioned that “Paradise Lost famously eschewed rhyme”, I thought it might be instructive to look at three dozen+ lines of it on the topic of the difficulty of escaping Hell, in reference to “Exit from Hell”.

    Me miserable! which way shall I flie
    Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
    Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
    And in the lowest deep a lower deep
    Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
    To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
    O then at last relent; is there no place
    Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
    None left but by submission; and that word
    Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
    Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
    With other promises and other vaunts
    Then to submit, boasting I could subdue
    Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
    How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
    Under what torments inwardly I groane:
    While they adore me on the Throne of Hell,
    With Diadem and Sceptre high advanc’d
    The lower still I fall, onely Supream
    In miserie; such joy Ambition findes.
    But say I could repent and could obtaine
    By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
    Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
    What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
    Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
    For never can true reconcilement grow
    Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
    Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
    And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
    Short intermission bought with double smart.
    This knows my punisher; therefore as farr
    From granting hee, as I from begging peace:
    All hope excluded thus, behold in stead
    Of us out-cast, exil’d, his new delight,
    Mankind created, and for him this World.
    So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
    Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
    Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
    Divided Empire with Heav’ns King I hold
    By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne;
    As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.

    • James Sale

      Thanks BS. Some readers may wonder what the relevance of your quoting Milton is, and I can surely tell them: yes, I confess, Milton’ Exit from Hell is far superior to my effort! That’s it. But because there is a greater one I do not feel intimidated, but rather inspired, as I hope all SCP readers and writers are by truly great work. Thanks again.

  8. James A. Tweedie

    When writing a sonnet, or any classically-structured poetic form, I believe that both the poet and the reader have certain expectations that should be met in regards to meter, rhyme and the organization of the thoughts or feelings being expressed.

    When writing in any other form (perhaps especially in blank verse) the poet and the reader should expect greater freedom in this regard. Evan is right in feeling free to shed the shackles of some phantasmal Platonic ideal and both Josephs are insightful in affirming the poet’s personal collaboration with the divine muse to give birth to words that can, by grace and faith, be experienced as inspirational/revelational, and even, perhaps, incarnational. As James says, while a measure of metrical consistency is of great value, succumbing to some theoretical metrical “straight-jacket” can all too easily result in “doggerel.” Accordingly, I affirm the beauty and success of these poems and fully embrace the poet’s defense of the disciplined and intentional liberties he has taken in presenting his thoughts as effectively and powerfully as possible. I am so grateful that CB raised the issue and even more grateful for the wonderful comments that have followed.

    • James Sale

      Hi James A. T. As always, I appreciate your kind words and thoughtfulness. There is clearly a balancing act here – too much liberty and we have abandoned form, too much and we are in a strait-jacket, which is why, on the latter point, I cited Pope – as classical as you can get in English, but he too made substitutions. I like the idea of Professor Salemi being able to ‘sense’ whether something is really metrical or not. That is a profound skill; for me I think I can sense the heresy (that is of modernism/post-modernism) less in the metrics but more in the subject matter – the inevitable undermining of traditional and true values which always starts creeping in somewhere, even when it looks formal. But thanks again – appreciate your support and work.

  9. C.B. Anderson

    James, I hold that your remark about expectations is extremely important. What are we trying to do here, if not to raise expectations in the general readership? If I attempt to write a blank verse sonnet, should you not expect fourteen lines written in decent iambic pentameter? If I attempt rhymes, should you not expect the rhymes to rhyme? I won’t claim that this is a higher standard, but it is a standard to which I hold myself, and if I fail, then I should hope that readers hold me accountable. Rules always have exceptions, proving that normative rules should never become shackles, but still, I would never consider playing tennis without a net. The idea that formal/classical poetry is infinitely malleable defies the idea that order (cosmic or temporal) has any worth whatsoever.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, we all agree with you! The question is one of nuance, not basic principles.

      I remember what some Supreme Court justice said when asked about pornography: “I can’t legally define it, but I know it when I see it.” I think the same way about iambic pentameter. My metric sense tells me immediately, as I read, whether a line is acceptably i-5, or if it is a botch, or if it is by some free-verse type trying to appear formal, or if it is by some suck-up New Formalist trying to disguise the meter to impress an editorial staff of free-verse partisans.

      You’re right about the /’til/ business. There are only two words of this type in standard English: /until/ and /till/. The absurd form /’til/ is precisely the kind of hyper-correct faux English that is part of the problem with overly self-conscious formalists. Like pronouncing the /t/ in “often,” it is really grating and pretentious. As for the grave accent on words like “winged,” I too find it mostly silly and pretentious, and the only case where it is defensible is in “blessed,” where the pronunciation does mark a semantic difference.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Yes, Joe, and this is why, when I mean the unmarked “blessed” I usually write it “blest.”

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Yes, we resoundingly agree with Kip.

      And if you still have the virus of modernism within your bloodstream, the resultant disease will manifest as broken prosody.

      So, it is both a matter of nuance as well as principles.

  10. James A. Tweedie

    Not to make light of a substantive discussion, but I couldn’t help myself:

    Poesy rhyméd, rhythméd ‘neath the sun,
    Talk, we did, discusséd ‘til we’d done,
    ‘til the wingéd, orbéd thing’d sunk
    And the blesséd thinking’d all been thunk.

    • C.B. Anderson

      If not being able to help yourself results in such delightful verse, then, please, forever abstain from self-help.

    • James Sale

      Very funny and very delightful. I seem to remember that final rhyme coming from a poem beginning, Out of his hole to steal he stole, And many a thought he thunk, And many a wicked … dah-ee-dah, And many a wink he wunk! Can’t quite recollect it thoroughly, but a very amusing piece, as is yours. Thanks.

  11. james sale

    Thanks CB – yes, I think we are absolutely on the same side here. I am glad you have had that Muse experience as I imagine most SCP poets have. Also, your not liking WB Yeats so much is fine; I think we are coming at the same thing but from widely varying perspectives and tastes, and that is good. Indeed, I as a result of your recommendation, have purchased the complete Wilbur poems – I need to get round to reading them as they sit on my shelves and I have been busy. One day, perhaps, I’ll choose a short Yeats’ lyric and try to explain to you why I – just I – find it so compelling emotionally, intellectually and technically; Leda and the Swan, for example, where he substitutes anapaests for iambs at critical moments in the sonnet narrative to amazing effect. But again, perhaps not to your taste, and that is fine. I’ll say something about Wilbur in due course.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    Things will become impossible if we insist that only Catholics can write usefully about Dante, or only Puritans can write perceptively about Milton, or only royalists can write genuinely about the Cavalier Poets. We are already choking on identity politics; why must we allow it to invade literary criticism? There are no more Greek hoplites, but there have been excellent translations and commentaries on Homer’s Iliad, done by persons of wildly disparate backgrounds.

    Sale’s point about the versatility of a master actor is important. The dramatic art — like literature — is fictive mimesis. Brando had the skill to perform all sorts of roles. I teach Dante’s Inferno to my humanities class every spring semester, and most of the students are non-Catholics. They learn it, they understand it, and they appreciate it. When they leave my class they know what the Beatific Vision is; they know who the Blessed Virgin Mary is; they know about actual and sanctifying grace, they know what a demonic non serviam is; and they know what the Church Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant are. That’s more that I can say for some Novus Ordo Catholics.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It is not a matter of identity, but of authority—”auctoritas”—the one word the Puritan liberal cannot tolerate.

      Are Italian faculties to replace Cristofor Landino’s commentaries on Divina Comedia with Protestant commentaries to keep classes from making Dante about his Catholic identity?

      If students must acquire, as preambula to the study of Dante, things like the Beatific Vision, the doctrine of grace, the Blessed Virgin Mary, purgatory, and Ecclesiology—all immense subjects even in an 8-year traditional seminary—are they to approach you or Mr. Sale for that?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I really must disagree with you, Joseph. Puritanical liberals are fanatically fixated on “auctoritas” — their own, and the dogmatic certainties about proper behavior and thinking that are so evident in liberal responses to the world. They are the most authoritarian people on the planet.

        Consider that fatuous book “Orientalism” put out by the late Edward Said. It asserted — dogmatically, on Said’s “auctoritas” as a Lebanese Arab — that no one in the West could write authentically or honestly about the East, and that all books written on the Orient by whites and Christians were false and deceptive and to be shunned as propaganda. What utter nonsense!

        How could anyone think that it would even be possible for a writer (of whatever religious persuasion) to deny Dante’s Catholic identity? Real scholars (not frauds like Said) are perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating cultures and religious beliefs that they do not personally share. I can explain what the chakras of Tantric Buddhism are, even though I don’t believe in them.

        Landino’s commentaries on Dante are excellent, but so are the notes of Bernard Stambler, a Jew who dedicated much of his academic career to understanding Dante.

  13. James A. Tweedie

    I am baffled by this conversation. Are you, Mr. MacKenzie, as a Roman Catholic, disqualifying yourself to provide commentary and analysis of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, et al, because they were Protestants? And that only seminary trained Roman Catholic scholars and theologians are qualified to offer commentary and analysis of Dante?

    • Joseph Charles McKenzie

      You have just named, Mr. Tweedie, respectively, a devout Catholic playwright, a baptized Catholic who withdrew from his apostasy at the end of his life, and a poet who, whatever his inner forum, owes absolutely everything to what he borrows from the Catholic literary culture of his time.

      As for your question, I do not disqualify myself from providing commentaries on any of these poets, but simply defer to scholars, such as Joseph Pearce and many others, who have spent their careers and in many instances their lives in the study of these poets.

      Ask me about Juvenal, and although I am still able to read him, I have spent so little time in his study that I would naturally refer you to Dr. Salemi, a recognized and admired classicist.

      Dr. Salemi and I actually agree that there is a real and fake auctoritas. For me, however, the idea of a “master actor” in the sense expressed inevitably amounts to someone like Dan Brown becoming a popular authority on Da Vinci.

      Both Dr. Salemi and I have non-Catholic friends who have made tremendous contributions to knowledge in the fields of everything from Dante to the Italian Renaissance art—men and women who know more about Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura or Poggio Bracciolini’s writings than any Catholic.

      But here is what these non-Catholic scholars all have in common. They have all mastered the Italian language and other languages beside. They can all read untranslated primary sources and not only that, do read them, constantly! It is what they do. This is why they are necessary.

      They do not need a comment thread on the SCP to crown them “master actors” in spite of never having read Dante’s own words in the dialect in which they were written or primary sources that are vital to an understanding of Dante’s time, his literary sources, his historical circumstances, the fullness of his Catholic vision, and so on.

      The day I see Dr. Salemi reading Joel Olsteen for elucidation on the Gospels, as opposed to Cornelius a Lapide, or Dan Brown to better understand the Blessed Magdalen as opposed to the sermons of St. Augustine, that is the day that we may be said to disagree in this particular.

      And I have my doubts that such a day will ever come.

      And it really doesn’t matter, because this is my last comment for the Society of Classical Poets.

  14. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Others may have a different response, but for me at least, the most illuminating writer on Dante in the 20th century was T. S. Eliot. I await a 21st century literary critic who can speak so clearly and so distinctly to me on the poetry of Dante.

  15. James Sale

    I have set up a new website to celebrate Dante’s forthcoming 700th Anniversary of his death in 2021, alongside promoting my own English Cantos. But from my Divine Comedies a number of people are doing readings. Here is one, a sublime rendition of my “It Didn’t Have to Happen” from the collection by our editor, Evan Mantyk. It is not flattery to say that I don’t think I could have done a better reading of this poem myself; the full implications of what I am hoping to convey through syntax, meter and rhyme are brilliantly – yet understatedly – brought out in this reading. Experience it for yourself:


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