The English Cantos: StairWell

Canto 4

Leaving a broken relationship of the past behind in Canto 3, the poet enters a new world of education and what that means. Before entering a specific establishment, the poet has to catch up with Dante and Virgil who have forged ahead. But how is Virgil—now incarnating in flesh—escaped from Limbo where he is forever condemned to be? The answer is in the paradoxical anomaly that Dante outlines in Inferno 2 v 73-4 when Beatrice says:

Quando sarò dinanzi al signore mio,
Di te mi loderò sovente a lui

‘When I return and face my Master
I shall often speak highly of you to Him’

How bright the future seems from where one stands
Stuck in a present where light most seems dim;
How little faith we have in now—beyond

Is better, always there where we must climb.
The architecture, flash metals and cords
Of twisted wire suspend—like massive limbs

Heaving their own trunk upwards—a huge high road
That purposes drive-throughs to paradise;
And mechanised, each person takes his load—

No load so heavy, vile, vicious—such vice!—
As is turned back at some dullard’s toll-booth
Where easy’s their game, minute their excise.

I stood there, then, stupefied by such truth:
This brave new world which human beings built
From where I was seemed towering and aloof;

Though on the near side, close, two figures knelt.
Instantly I knew who they were and breathed
Relief: my masters—whose love I couldn’t fault.

But why crouched so? To study strange beliefs
Half-hidden by the metal’s overlay,
Which, covering earth, helped hide its deepest grief?

As I approached, my Dante turned to say:
‘Timely, my son, you come to see this rot—
See here—who’d think this structure (strong to stay)

Might through the slightest wind fall into Not?
All this is sweet philosophy awry;
From human minds whose principles forgot

The first. We go and soon will see just why
Every civilisation mankind’s made,
No matter how glorious or how high,

Descends from high vision to paltry trade,
And last becomes a racket and a cheat
Through which its own citizens dig their grave.’

I looked just where the earth on metal ate
Its root—and where the dingy rust, like red
Slime, penetrated its once pristine state.

Forebodings, I felt, of what lay ahead,
As something Preference would like not to see:
All dreams of mankind in ruins, quite dead,

A litter of carnage—called history—
Which cut down to size all the vaunting up;
But I too was human, this too was me!

Here Virgil helped, for he knew empire’s map
More than most; had stood beside Octavian
When all war’s fortunes fell in his lap;

Had known supreme the power over land,
As well control of Homer’s wine dark seas;
What it meant possessing total command

And its illusions—preaching Roman peace,
The while subjecting the whole middle Earth
To violence, slavery, orgiastic feasts.

‘I praise the One I died before His birth
In Palestine; Tiberius had no hold
Of me, and I no part to laud his worth

In poetry. For Caesar, Pilate failed
The basic test: not justice even, but
Their own—the law—served up both cold and spoiled.

Great futures, once so open, now all shut.
Be strong in faith; remember my lost plight—
Deader than ancient Rome, in Limbo; yet

Despite no hope of ever seeing light,
She who is lovely beyond words, or what
Words mean or could, made my name burnish bright

Before the Throne—her mercy burning hot—
Enkindling His creative flame anew
To change direction and rescue my lot.

Such is His mercy—what mercy must do;
Yet who predicts whom mercy will uphold?
Naked I was, but now enclothed to view

In flesh, so that my spirit in fresh mould
Might make this journey upwards, and with you.’
He ceased, but his words—like honey—had healed;

Himself foremost, but ‘with you’ meant ‘we two’.
Before God’s grace, no ranking, all was grace;
My own poor verse had its purpose also;

And Virgil—friend—I knew now face to face.
With Dante, then, together we stepped upon
The great metallic arch to this new place,

And daylight grew in the sky—still more shone—
So that I felt renewal and ascent,
For mercy meant that there was hope for man…



James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated by The Hong Kong Review for the 2022 Pushcart Prize for poetry, has won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, and performed in New York in 2019. He is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. His most recent poetry collection is “HellWard.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog

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13 Responses

  1. Allegra Silberstein

    Thank you for your wonderful poem. It made me think of our world today and the mercy and hope at the end was good for my soul.

    • James Sale

      Thank you Allegra – I am glad you picked up on the mercy and hope. This is Purgatory, not Hell, though the astonishing thing for me is that the subtext of Dante’s masterpiece indicates that even one lost in Hell – Virgil in this case – has a way out through that great mercy which is always active.

  2. Margaret Coats

    Reincarnation of Virgil gives you a bodily human companion, such as even Dante did not have. And there is an elegant provision for Virgil’s salvation, beyond powerful intercession and even beyond the dictum of divine mercy, if you come upon some water and remember the words of baptism. Fascinating!

    • James Sale

      Thanks Margaret. I am glad you like this. Your point about water and baptism is very apt. In Charles Williams’ remarkable novel, All Hallow’s Eve, the whole plot turns on the escaping nurse who tries to remove the child from its evil, diabolic keepers. She fails in that they recover the child, abandoned by a small puddle. What the forces of evil do not realise is that the nurse baptises the child in the puddle before fleeing – and the consequences of this ‘baptism’ reverberate throughout the whole book. As you say, fascinating!

  3. C.B. Anderson

    No poet, in my experience, has ever passed off shittier rhyme than you have here as an imitation of good poetics. Congrats.

    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Much as Zoilus carped upon Homer, to focus on technical quibbles when there is so much else going on in this extract in terms of vision, theme, various literary devices, etc., seems to miss the point. Sale’s practice of using near rhyme places him in the company of Dickinson, Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, to name just a few. It is a convention that, being halfway between full rhyme and blank verse, has established precedents. To meaningfully oppose this convention, more is needed than an emotional reaction sprinkled with vulgarities—one needs reasons.

      The fact that one may not care for the rhyming practices of Yeats, Owen, or Sale is a bit like saying “I don’t like tacos.” It is a personal preference that, admittedly, no amount of argument can overcome. But the statement itself leads one not to ask, “what’s wrong with tacos,” but rather, “what’s the deal with a person who doesn’t like tacos?”

      You are one of the cleverest rhymesters of our day, CB, but like most artists in most mediums, you don’t seem to like or understand that which you do not yourself do. It is like Stravinsky hating Beethoven—a ridiculous but understandable opinion, given his particular position in the social space of his creative network.

      While Sale, being a living contemporary, does not have the authority of Yeats, Owen, etc. there is a good deal of sublimity to be found in his work, which is a quality one encounters very rarely these days.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Fair enough, Andrew, but let anyone who thinks that the rhyme triplets dim/climb/limbs, hold/failed/spoiled, or upon/shone/man are good rhymes (or even good slant rhymes) please raise his hand. I’ve written my fair share of near rhymes (to use your preferred term), but I always strive to bring them a little closer to the ideal. It’s not rocket surgery, and Mr. Sale certainly has sufficient resources at hand (to wit, the entire English language and his own verbal dexterity) to go that extra mile. I’m not a huge fan of either Dickenson or Yeats, but you will notice that these other two tend not to strain credulity, though neither usually put upon themselves the burden of finding that third rhyme.

    • Dr Tom Woodman

      It seems to me quite legitimate to have half rhymes and even other unorthodox rhymes in a narrative epic of this length.

      • James Sale

        Thanks Tom for pointing this out. Use of rhyme (or meter) is always contextual. Robert Frost’s short lyric, Stopping by Woods…’ is made perfect by its perfect rhyme scheme, especially given its subject matter. It is a sublime miniature. But, as you say, in the case of a long poem – an epic poem (and The English Cantos are certainly going to be in excess of 9000 lines if one lives to complete it: it is already over 6000!) – the idea of having consistent perfect rhymes (and/or meter) is mildly absurd: it would lead to boredom, and an inability to signify big emotional/intellectual shifts in content. This, of course, is true particularly with the English language as it is not so rich with rhymes, as say Italian is. So pararhyme and what you call ‘unorthodox’ rhymes are essential as long as they do not take-over and become some sort of fetish.

  4. Brian Yapko

    James, I very much admire this poetic work. I am particularly impressed – and moved – by the speaker’s intellectual/spiritual development from the beginning of this Canto until he is really a changed man by the end. The lonely beginning has your speaker wandering alone – hating the present and putting all faith on a bright future – as he encounters what strikes me as an architectural oddity – a building which is familiar yet ominous and could be something utterly dystopian or the research library at a local university. The speaker seems to be tempted by intellectual achievement as his salvation yet you describe the metaphoric building as “aloof” and you reference a “brave new world” – which seems more Huxley than Shakespeare. It is there that the speaker’s bafflement is addressed by Dante and Virgil, each in turn.

    Dante does a wonderful job of piercing through the temptation of seeking salvation in unspiritual education reminding us of “human minds whose principles forgot the first” and further reminding us of civilizations which are built on such to descend from “high vision to paltry trade.” I especially like your/his description of the hypocrisy of Rome preaching peace while destroying much to achieve it and rotting morally from the inside.

    But what I like most about this Canto is the relationship between the speaker and Virgil, which is actually deeply touching and deeply Christian. You relate the story of how Virgil is rescued from Purgatory – in a sense by love twice, Beatrice through her intercession, and then Christ Himself. And there is yet more love to come – Virgil is now loved – specifically referred to as “friend” – by the speaker now knows Virgil warmly and face to face.

    Where you go with this is so profound. There is great depth in the phrase “Before God’s grace, no ranking,.” and that “Mercy meant that there was hope for man.” If there was hope for Virgil there is hope for all of us. Certainly one can hope.

    From a point of bafflement and intellectual temptation to sure knowledge of grace, salvation and both divine and brotherly love. This is an entire epic in one Canto. What a wonderful piece – and message – to contemplate! Well done.

  5. James Sale

    Dear Brian – thank you so much for such a deep, appreciative and perceptive account of this extract from the poem; and I’m really glad you feel it is a ‘whole’ piece in itself, though clearly it goes on to explore modern ‘education’ and its problematic rootlessness. I hope you will get to see this too, and enjoy it. There are two great things about writing poetry: one is, writing it – the Muse infusing the writer with eternity, for time certainly stops when one truly writes from the soul. But second, and almost as great, is finding the readers who get what you are doing, get what the poetry is about, and whose own hearts are opened by the words. That’s a fabulous privilege – thank you for being just such a reader!

  6. Tom Woodman

    You are totally into the swing of the Dante now, James– it seems to flow effortlessly, although I well know it isn’t effortless. A great achievement, and I would like to see it more widely known.

    • James Sale

      Thanks again, Tom, for this. Yes, I feel myself that I am in a flow and a new extract will be appearing on this site shortly, which I hope people enjoy. It is from Canto 10, the purgatory of poets (corresponding to my Hell of poets in Canto 10 of HellWard). It deals with a poet you know very well, Tom, from the C17th, so I hope you like my treatment of him. And yes too: the cry from all poets on these pages – would that all our works were more widely known!


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