by Andrew Benson Brown

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.

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31 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Thank you Evan for giving me advance warning of this unsolicited and epic review of my epic; and thank you Andrew for such a warm endorsement of my work. It is always for others to decide how good or otherwise a particular work is, for authors are always far too partial to their own progeny, but I can say that I admire your erudition, insight, and perhaps most astonishingly of all the thing all writers seek: namely, someone who has empathised sufficiently to try to understand what the author is attempting in the first place! In this I feel as if you have got inside my brain and its own inner mechanisms. You have certainly done some massive homework in order to present the information, generally and personally, that you have. For which I am very grateful: thank you again.

    • A.B. Brown

      Thanks James, I’m glad we are ‘of one mind,’ so to speak, about this piece! There are too many bad critics out there who seem to think that the function of criticism is to just practice its primary dictionary definition—that is, to just tear apart whatever they’re reviewing. The truth is the opposite, and it is important that a reviewer try, as you say, to empathize with the purpose of the author and flesh out what they were getting at. I think some contextual padding beyond a bare bones review adds a sense of our personal relationships to the wider historical scope of which we are a part and are always at least implicitly responding to (or in your case, very explicitly). Although I ended up getting a bit carried away with adding context! Given your chosen genre, though, I think it works.

  2. Leo Zoutewelle

    Amazing! I look forward to being able to learn something (a vast amount) of new aspects of understanding from Mr. Sale’s work!

  3. A.B. Brown

    There really is a lot going on here, Leo! If you read some of the other reviews on amazon and, such as T. Rodriguez’s, others point out different aspects that I missed. I could have gone on, and I actually cut out a few paragraphs and observations due to length considerations—one of the most fascinating of which is a numerological significance that bears comparison with both Dante and Milton.

  4. James A. Tweedie

    Caveat: I have not yet read Mr. Sale’s Volume 1 in full, although I was privileged to have been allowed to preview one of his cantos prior to publication. That said, I fully embrace Mr. Brown’s insightful review as being consistent with my own, although far better expressed than anything I could have written.

    Reading his review of HellWard triggered several thoughts, one of which concerns Dante’s deferred recognition as the premier poet of his age. Perhaps it was because he named names! The specificity of persons in his work is both its genius and its bane. There must have been some serious blowback from folks who took offense to the way members of their family were portrayed in Inferno/Purgatorio. And as for us today, the only way to know or care about those people is to spend more time reading the annotations than the poetry itself.

    Fortunately for us, Sale has (thus far, unlike Dante) managed to avoid tediously long condemnatory lists of bad characters. There are lists, of course, but they are short ones, and he approaches them deftly with slightly-askew pseudonyms and witty alliterative allusions. It is not an easy feat to walk the middle ground between tedious moral judgments and frivolous (albeit entertaining) smackdowns. To my 21st-century sensibilities Sale manages to avoid the pre-puritanical Florentine morality that later gave rise to the likes of Savanarola. Call HellWard “serious entertainment” and I won’t disagree with you.

    A second thought concerns the lack of contemporary interest in epic poetry.

    In addition to Mr. Brown’s insights, I would add that we are a Western society consumed with instant gratification and increasingly ignorant of our historical-cultural heritage. We are infatuated with flash fiction (which I happen to write and enjoy), free-verse poetry (that, for many “poets” can be thoughtlessly dashed off with as little effort as blowing their nose), and appliances that are not worth the trouble to repair when they break. Not many will have the time or inclination to plow through page after page of rhythmic, rhyming verse filled with allusions that will sail past most college-educated young people sight unseen.

    There will be exceptions, of course, and I hope that such will consume HellWard as they would a well-prepared meal–savoring each morsel as a delight.

    T.S. Eliot wrote that, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” This is another reason epic poetry is out of favor these days. This is because such poetry busies itself with foundational themes of human existence that have, of late, been culturally marginalized in favor of the emotional embrace of a seemingly infinite number of “causes.” By contrast, poetry of the HellWard variety deals with first principles of truth, meaning, values, love, fear, life, pain, suffering, death, and the like–foundational principles from which we derive what we believe and how we live our lives. In other words, epic verse challenges us to think as well as feel. It pushes reality into our face without preaching and–while generally making a strong distinction between good and evil–does not always make a clear disctinction between black and white. Postmodernism rejects the concept of rational realism and objective truth, preferring to deconstruct history, art, and thought into subjective narratives that “trend” with the current “idee du jour.” Epic poetry of the sort that HellWard represents, is brazenly timeless and stark in presenting the human comedy stripped naked of pretense. Eliot’s words are more true now than when he wrote them.

    I have more thoughts but will not bore you with them. It’s good to ponder such things, but even better to celebrate a brilliant review of a brilliant effort on the part of James Sale.

    • A.B. Brown

      Thanks for your many insights, Mr. Tweedie.

      Dante definitely had a lot of enemies. He was totally unrelenting in his moral code, which is why he (affectionately) places even his mentor and former guardian Brunetto Latini in the circle of Sodomites. That snippet from Jacob Burkhardt’s ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’ has more that I did not get into, but Burckhardt goes on to say that Dante could have been crowned in other places, but he wanted ONLY to be crowned in Florence (though he still would not have beaten Albertino Mussato to the punch). So while his status was not towering like it is today, he had been respected as a poet since he wrote ‘La Vita Nuova.’ It also didn’t help that Dante died within a year or so of finishing Paradiso. If he had lived another decade, things might have been different.

      I believe that Mr. Sale, in one of his essays on ‘Poetry and the Muses,’ writes about poetry-writing as being a fusion of the left and right brains. Too many poets and “artists” today of all kinds think of their craft as just being some sort of right-brain activity where they can drink too much or smoke some greens and sit down and whip out a masterpiece. They do not have the discipline, as you say, to either write anything good nor read quality works like the one under review, because they see developing discipline as smacking of hierarchy and oppression. I wanted to end the essay on a hopeful note by focusing on the future in contrast to this dismal present, though it is probably true that in this dismal present we are toiling in the dark.

    • James Sale

      Hi James – thanks for your thoughtful and incisive comments. It is of course never boring to talk of timeless truths and to remind ourselves of what is important in our lives aside from what is trivial. In that sense, as you recognise, a true epic must attempt to scale those heights; and great reviews provide further commentary which is highly necessary – given where we are today!

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    This learned and illuminating review, with its careful explanation of the epic tradition, is what American scholarship used to produce in the past.

    Today, this brilliant piece of erudite commentary wouldn’t get past the first reading at any “scholarly” journal in academia. The race-class-gender freaks would turn it down in a flash.

    • A.B.B.

      Thanks, Dr. Salemi. As I am sure you know better than I, to read authors straightforwardly in an attempt to grasp their true intentions is considered “naïve” by most scholars and they’re all trying to dig beneath the surface to uncover the power politics. There are serious flaws to Foucault’s theories of power as some ubiquitous force that flows through everything, and a number of excellent philosophers have pointed these out. Nobody seems to care, though, and when one tries to apply the deconstructive method to itself one only makes enemies.

  6. Theresa Rodriguez

    Thank you, Mr. Brown, for such a comprehensive review of James Sale’s HellWard! And congratulations to you, James, on such a monumental achievement!

    • A.B.B.

      Plus, I am given to understand that there are other reviews forthcoming in other publications! It speaks to the brilliance of the work that so many are coming out in support of it.

    • A.B. Brown

      Glad you enjoyed, Yael. You should order a copy yourself, you won’t be disappointed!

  7. Bruce E. Wren

    As I have not yet read it, I cannot opine on the work by Mr. Sale, but thanks to these reviews, I am buying a copy today. Mr. Sale, thank you for your labor of love and courage. I can only hope that many copies are sold; if not in our lifetime, in the years to come. We owe you many thanks. And thanks also to Mr. Brown, Ms. Rodriguez, and Mr. Tweedie, for their superb reviews.

    • A.B Brown

      Glad I could influence your consumer choices! I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts on the matter once you read it. James can use all the amazon reviews he can get!

    • james sale

      Thanks Bruce and all who have commented. I appreciate the support that the SCP has given me over the last 6 years. Nobody really makes it on their own: there is always overt or covert influences that encourage and support a poet and enable them to go to the next level of their writing. For me the SCP under Evan’s leadership has been remarkable. And I would also point out that several poets who appear or have appeared on these pages, including Evan himself, Theresa Rodriguez, James B Nicola and other Americans too, have contributed to my wider ambition to promote Dante (his 700th anniversary of death next year, 2021) and epic generally. Do visit my website set up for this purpose: If you can contribute let me know. And finally, thanks again to Andrew for his magnificent review – the more people like and review ‘epic’ of this nature (and I am not alone in writing it – there are at least 2 other people on this site doing it), the more we push back against the cultural mores of despair and nihilism.

  8. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thanks, Mr. Brown, for a genuinely critical and, maybe more importantly, most inviting review, and to you, Mr. Sale, for what only you could have done.
    I may be guilty of cheek (since I haven’t yet even obtained a copy of the poem!) for hazarding a guess on the unidentified person: Leia (Star Wars jumps inevitably to mind) Leer (beside such leerers as those in De Kooning’s paintings, is there a respelling of Ger. lehr, = empty?) = (through alliterative parallel) Germaine Greer? Or shoot me down for taking a stab with no context.

    • Andrew B. Brown

      Well now I feel really dumb…but I also sympathize with you, Julian, if you ever were forced to familiarize yourself with some of G. Greer’s work. I had to read Judith Butler in grad school, along with some others, and that was enough for me.

  9. james sale

    Thanks Julian for your evil form of temptation: how can one not reply to such a challenge even though you haven’t yet got your copy? Your reasonings are all excellent – and add also the allusion to Penthesilea (Leia/Ilea anagram) whom Achilles cut down (somewhat graphically described in the poem) and … you reach a not incorrect conclusion! As Andrew says, the poem is not a TS Eliot kind of (much less James Joyce kind of) literary puzzle for academics to unravel – the story tells itself in a fast moving narrative – but, if you do like literary detective work, subtle and not-so subtle references, I am sure the poem will not disappoint you.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, I’m intrigued. Congratulations on all your hard work and publication. On the strength of this wonderful, in depth review, together with the fine endorsement from Theresa Rodriguez on Amazon, I have purchased a copy. I thoroughly look forward to reading it and wish you every success with the sales. I must also mention, I listened to a couple of clips on Facebook – I know I’m in for a treat.

    • James Sale

      That’s fabulous news Susan, especially as we’re both from Kent – though we vote in different elections now, but if we could we’d both be voting for the same candidate! Hopefully, you are going to enjoy this poem – volume 1 – and I hope too that I will see your name added to Theresa’s on Amazon. Nobody writes poetry for money except the seriously cynical, but what we want is the informed readership, the elite who fashion tastes, and who help drive culture away from its current negativity and ugliness. If sales contribute to that effect, then I want sales – but word of mouth, recommendations, and passion also contribute much too. Let’s create that community. All the best.

  11. A.B. Brown

    Well said about community, James. Let us hope that with the financial and cultural support of the informed makers of good taste, you will finally be able to purchase, several years hence…a cup of coffee! (Even several for your friends, perhaps? A positive and passionate community needs caffeine, James.)

    • james sale

      Yes, I think coffee would be an ideal contribution to the growth of such a community, though being English I am more inclined to take my caffeine via tea and the tea I recommend is the strangely named ‘Russian Caravan’ which is a wonderfully smoky tea. Failing access to that, the the more common Lapsang Suchong would be ideal.

  12. The Mindflayer

    This is not only a phenomenal “review” but really transcends classification as a review; it’s a potent essay on what epic really means, its relevance to our culture, and where HellWard sits in it. I am astonished by Andrew Benson Brown’s clarity of thought on the matter (as well as wide reading) and there are several profound insights in this (too many to list them all). But to name just a few, I loved how he compared Beowulf with its cinematic adaptation and surmised: “It is the secular modern age, and not Christ, that killed the heroic ideal.” This is profoundly true. As someone who studied Old English, poems such as Dream of the Rood show that Christ was incorporated into the heroic narrative of the Anglo Saxons in quite surprising and powerful ways. In Dream, it compares the nails going through Christ’s hands to that of arrows through a warrior king! They understood the heroism of the sacrificial act and parsed it through their own vocabulary. Fascinating stuff!

    I also love this description of HellWard, “characters are inexorably propelled headlong through their own peculiar doom.” I think this really captures the mood of the poem. It implies that language itself is a mechanism by which the characters are tortured and punished, which is, of course, in some ways theologically true!

    Finally, I love the idea that “Throughout history, ranging from the Iliad to the Mahabharata, epics have been cultural touchstones.” I absolutely agree and think this is a really important and necessary observation; we need to understand further what epics tell us about our own culture, where we are now, and where we might be going. Whilst I think I probably see greater merit in the novel form than perhaps most on this site (which makes sense as I am a novelist!) – I definitely agree that we need more epics in a variety of forms, so long as they are true to the tenets Andrew Benson Brown has expounded in this masterful essay! I have learned lots from reading this to inform my own work.

    • A.B. Brown

      Thanks very much for the appreciative review of my review, Mr. Mindflayer. Novel writing is certainly the smart thing to do these days if you want to actually hope to make some kind of living off of your work…we anachronistic versifiers are stubborn holdouts, but someone has to shake their fists at this vapid modern age.
      Interesting that you studied Old English. I have dabbled in it myself but have yet to get serious with it, one more thing to add to the bucket list. Any books you would recommend on the subject?

      • The Mindflayer

        Hah, even making a living off novels is difficult these days, though admittedly more probable than with poetry! I am honoured you’d seek my recommendations… Mitchell & Robinsons “A Guide To Old English” was a good place to start for me in terms of understanding the language, which probably bears greater parity to German than modern English. In terms of books “about” Old English, I’d recommend “Old English Poetry In Context” by the inimitable Philippa Semper (who I was fortunate enough to study under). Definitely one to look at – though might be difficult to get your hands on these days as these academic books so often go out of print.

  13. james sale

    Thanks Mindflayer for the really interesting stuff on Old English, adding not only to the epic thread but also the interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice and how a warrior culture responded to it. I do love this highly constructive sharing of deep knowledge.

    • The Mindflayer

      Yes, it is fascinating: how do you make pacifism interesting to warrior culture? It’s clever in that the poet talks about Jesus “climbing” the crucifix, rather than being nailed to it. He makes him the active party, even though technically he’s having these horrible things done to him. Bizarre as it is, I think there’s probably something to learn from theologically there!

  14. Michelle Fawn

    It’s such a joy to see Hellward receive such incredible recognition in this review – I couldn’t agree more that it is not only a monumental achievement but also such an important piece of writing for modern society. When I read Hellward, the feeling it left me with told me how important it was. It felt like it really struck to the heart of something so truthful and human. But reading this review has allowed me to appreciate more fully its academic and literary genius as well as its place in wider society. Thank you Mr Sale for Hellward and I can’t wait for volumes two and three. Thank you also Mr Brown for the incredible insights in your review!


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