The poet has now escaped Hell, and has arrived in Purgatory or what he calls the StairWell. But he seems to have been abandoned by Dante, and has a fresh set of problems to confront. In this first section of the Canto he encounters an unexpected companion to help him on his way …

Some force, unknown before, but light as words
Are light, when sung beside alpine moraines
One sunny morning, clear, as those small birds

Their tweets ring for miles, echoing again
Eternal joy in that sheer riff of life
Which advertises nothing’s been in vain.

So, then, I felt; or as the day my wife
Said yes and loneliness was all foregone
And so in joining her no more the strife

That’s being two: forever we are one;
And thinking that one word, One, caused me then
To tremble: sure, another urged me on,

Awaiting with patience knowing no end
At last the demon in me would be cast
Out—to be finally home with all true men.

Yet, how could that be, for I was lost?
Within, too, cancer nipped, as crabs might do,
Their pincers picking, probing to digest

What flesh is, leaving only residue
Like litter laid on ocean’s sweeping floor
And I, in all that swell, at last mere spew.

Where was I, and where had I been before?
Perched on a ledge now and somewhere between
The hopeless dead with nothing to live for—

For their own actions hold them self-condemned—
And this place where my soles felt scorching heat
Whilst in my face a cold blast cruelly thrummed.

I barely could see, no more than two feet;
Ahead, if I could descry anything,
Something, which seemed a thin, transparent sheet,

Held fort-like, proof against all entering.
Then I recalled my guide: where was he now?
Surely, ahead of me and if not following?

No going back, then, that at least I knew;
But anyway my head could hardly turn,
So much I had but one path to pursue.

But how? What magic must my soul now learn?
I whispered in the faintness of this light,
‘Dante, help me now: where is your strong arm?’

At first, mere void responded to my plight,
Some primal nothing as, perhaps, we think—
In error—buries us in its whole night,

But then, just when I felt my own soul sink
Within and hope about to be expunged
Forever, eyes saw, as on an ice rink

Where some consummate skater’s fast, and lunged
Forward, behind we see markings in ice,
That spell a word engraved there as boots plunged,

Be it so brief, yet plain in their advice:
Which word brought me to tears, its letters were ‘Mercy’ –
Like double sixes from unlikely dice

That reprimand against adversity
And where I was now; but more clarified:
Not boots but hands cut ice, and waved at me

As it were, beckoning beyond the dead
To join whoever these hands belonged to
And like him pierce the veil and forge ahead.

Mercy must mean, I reasoned, I must go;
That Power on high had given His assent
And—even as I thought—so I went through

As Mercy melt the veil and two hands lent
Assistance. There I was: the other side,
Collapsing, held by one Providence sent.

My mind all skewed, confused and hanging wide,
Aware the scorching heat and bitter cold
No longer burnt and froze my every side.

And I in someone’s arms whose covering fold
Held me with a new strength whose depth spanned time
Deeper than Dante’s did, if truth be told;

As if I needed more to make this climb
Than even Dante had in his reserves,
Infinite though they seemed compared to mine.

This blessing, then, more than I could deserve
Now infiltrated my soul with its touch,
Renewing purpose and upholding nerve.

I staggered back—straightening from my slouch
On those firm shoulders which had helped me through—
To see that one I felt I owed so much.

He stood four-square and somehow solid too,
Not like some ghost lain dead two thousand years.
I can’t explain but … sure, his name I knew,

But couldn’t say. Was it respect, or fear,
Or both? Between us then a moment’s vacuum,
As I, from that grave face’s deep austere,

Unable to turn or let my words come.
But then, he smiled. I blurted, ‘Who are you?’
And ‘Virgilius est nomen meum’,

Immediately confirmed it was true:
The Roman poet who also knew hell;
Led Dante, like Dante, one of so few;

Now here in what seemed an inverted bell
Of stone. Ahead—rising—a sheer rock face,
Behind—reversing—the merciful veil

That since re-formed to plug and block this place;
So going back nor forward neither seemed
Possible. Dante vanished, without trace.

I’d plumbed the depths, but had I simply dreamed?
That hospital, hallucinating on
My bed of torment with all those I’d named?

But Virgil beckoned me to come and join
Him where he faced the wall, all resolute.
Ten cubits high, at least, its span,

And smooth as glass, no indent for a foot
To climb. No way—I saw—to gain its peak.
But Virgil turned; his hand seemingly alight,

He placed on that spot where I was so weak.
“The cancer has you here, and you must die,”
He said. “So how will you find what you seek?

“Know now: we enter where time comes alive,
Change cannot be stopped, everything decays,
And you by sweat alone will not survive.”

He paused, as if deliberating ways
Of rescue. “Still, all doors are open—for
That soul which yearns to believe, and so prays.”

Then, “Tell me—what truly lies in your core?
Do you believe in One whose Hand can save?
Whose Hand can open even lockless doors?

“Do you? Your state, as mine once was, is grave.”
I shuddered at his words, aching inside,
Especially at that point his touch moved—

Stirring the fungal pottage to explode
And paste its spores throughout my living frame;
I hardly could hold in its intense load;

With it, too, came searing, unbearable pain.
“Virgil!” I cried. “The cancer kills. Help me!”
But then I heard him mutter just one name:

“Phoebus Apollo! Now man—look up—see!”
Despite my suffering—which preoccupied—
New light flooded down, an outflow of glory.

I raised my eyes and there on top I spied
The god, magnificent, with bow and one
Arrow of silver forged in highest sky,

Whose flight accomplished what he willed be done.
So bright, his light obscured the pain I felt
And lifted my spirits, otherwise so down.

He raised his arrow, and as he did, knelt.
Then, in a move as fast as lightning strikes,
His arrow pierced the rock, which seemed to tilt

Till, suddenly, I heard, as thunder cracks,
Pure stone split, and the sheer face divide,
Twist, shift, as vein-like threads of plastered streaks

Recalling old age and its washed-up tide,
Appeared. What had seemed smooth was now upset—
Another cosmos with new rules applied.

Neither Virgil nor myself could stand or get
Our balance—wraith though he be—we both fell:
The roiling floor held us as in a net.

Perhaps endlessly stuck there, truth to tell,
Except at that moment Apollo’s voice
Rang clear. “You who have escaped deepest hell,

Listen—to enter time is now your choice,
Proceeding further do, at your own peril,
Here change subtracts your pith and stills your joys.”

Ah! Desperate me, a-panic and feral:
Oracle clear—what greater warning of
Dangers ahead? But Virgil’s mind held level.

“Now fix your mind and heart on Him above
And pray as Hezekiah prayed before.
Remember? Those ten steps that his God gave

When cancer all but had him dead for sure?
Remember? Here are figs I will apply
As ointment to your wounds, to make them pure.

But pray.”



James Sale is a worldwide thought leader on motivation: he has had 4 books on the topic published by Routledge, and over 700 management consultants in 15 countries use his products. James is also a feature writer on culture for The Epoch Times. He has written poetry for over 50 years and has had 9 collections published. He won First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and his next collection, The English Cantos Volume 1: HellWard is due shortly. For more on this, go to https://englishcantos.home.blog. He can be contacted at james@motivationalmaps.com.

NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to mbryant@classicalpoets.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here.

13 Responses

  1. Andrew Benson Brown

    The shift from HellWard’s predominant emotion of horror to pathos here is clearly conveyed in the opening stanzas: the imagery of singing “beside alpine moraines” and the tweeting of birds to describe the light and clarity of the “force, unknown before,” as well as the reminiscence on oneness and the day the author met his wife. This shift is supported by the structural parallel of meeting Virgil and Apollo here, as we met Dante and Calliope in the beginning of Hellward. As I have noted previously, I love the syntactic complexity in your narrative, James, and here the use of colons, semicolons, and dashes is especially effective at conveying the trembling and hesitation in proceeding through the dark without Dante. As I have also noted elsewhere, the use of regular near rhyme is a unique aesthetic choice that has been masterfully done by English translators of Italian epics like Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, but has not been previously employed by a major epic poet in English.

    Although I recently DID discover a precedent for using terza rima in English epic: ‘Omeros,’ by Derek Walcott—yet another redundant addition to the modernist tradition of reimagining ancient myths in an ‘everyday’ vein that is monumentally boring. As in the case of other modern-day “epics” like Turner’s, I found it to be not epic at all in any sense but length, and am flabbergasted that Walcott won the Nobel Prize for this lackluster snoozefest.

    All this is to say that, for these and other reasons, James Sale is the grandmaster of high epic in our times, as Salemi is the grandmaster of epic satire. I can’t thank Evan and the SCP enough for providing a “safe space” (heh heh) that allows the revitalization of these genres.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Andrew. I actually love the D L Sayers’ translation and her notes to the DC are excellent. And it was there that I found her provocative remark: “Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model …” Indeed. She showed the form was possible in English and so the rest came together. It is good too to have that ‘safe space’!

      • Andrew Benson Brown

        Love a good work of annotated scholarship myself. And I imagine that if your book is read “six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history,” then some annotations to your work will be necessary as well. We must provide fuel to feed the scholars of the future, though we ourselves go hungry!

  2. Theresa Rodriguez

    James, this excerpt from StairWell is no less powerful and compelling than your first book, HellWard! Looking forward to reading the entire second book!

    • James Sale

      Thank you Theresa – I am looking forward to writing it – God willing – and I am currently – having completed Canto 3 – taking a break to renew my batteries and await the Muse again.

  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, like Theresa, having read HellWard, I thoroughly look forward to reading StairWell. This poetic treat from Volume 2 is a reminder of the rich and spellbinding language that takes the reader on an eye-opening journey that engages all the senses. I can’t wait to immerse my mind in the bewitching imagery, pacey poetry, and enchanting philosophy of StairWell.

    • James Sale

      All good, then, Susan – I especially like your word ‘spellbinding’ – that is exactly the magic one wishes to conjure. Those who read my earlier articles on poetry on these pages will know that one of my all-time favourite poems is Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: weave a circle round him thrice and close your eyes in holy dread … the number 3 again, it’s all magic and poetry is a spell. Thank you, then, for your appreciation of this – it means a lot to me.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    The image of Virgil touching the narrator’s side, and “Stirring the fungal pottage to explode / And paste its spores throughout my living frame” is magnificent language, because it is a deeply real and a deeply disturbing evocation of cancer. And then Sale follows it up with the appearance of Phoebus Apollo, whose silver arrow shatters the rocky obstacle to further progress — Apollo, who is the god both of disease and medicine!

  5. James Sale

    Thanks for your kind and perceptive remarks Joe, and I am glad you liked the cancer imagery. As a matter of curious coincidence, the poem was published (last Sunday) on the same day that I was in hospital having my biennial CT scan for cancer, so I am hoping that when I get the result the God of all healing – Apollo as you rightly point out in the poem – will have, through that supreme power He has to subdue all things, have healed me of the tumour (fungal pottage) that I am hoping to be able to say ‘I had’. We’ll see. Meanwhile, the ascent continues – thanks again for commenting.

  6. Cynthia Erlandson

    All I can say is, Wow — I’m really impressed with this! I have been reading slowly through Dorothy Sayers’ translation of DC for the past several months, and love it. Terza rima is a magnificent thing — and one form I have never had the courage to try. Congratulations on your successful use of it here.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Cynthia – appreciate your comments. Yes, it is a magnificent thing and Dante of course invented the form. One language is not the same as another, so it’s difficult to replicate the exact form of what Dante did – eg the hendecasyllabic – 11 syllable – line which gives 33 syllables per stanza – another astonishing result for the number 3 which is baked into the poem as on a rock face! But seeing great translations in English can help us see what the possibilities for the English language are. Like you, I love the Sayers’ translation. Another fine terza rima translation is by Peter Dale from the mid-90s. Peter is still alive and as a small footnote, I published some of his original work for the Schools’ Poetry Association (when I edited their Footnotes series) in the UK in the 80s.

  7. Tom Woodman

    Yes, James, I agree with all these comments– this is clearly up to the standard you set before, and so I look forward very much to reading more.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Tom – really appreciate your view and support. You will be pleased to know that I am now up to Canto 5, but again am taking a little break for re-charge purposes!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.