Extract from DoorWay Canto 3:
Constellation of the Virgin

DoorWay is the Poet’s journey through Heaven. Having left
the constellation of Libra in Canto 2, he now enters the
Constellation of Virgo where he finds and meets various
‘innocents’ and literal virgins of life, as well as Dr. Johnson,
who was born under the sign of Virgo. Having just met a
long dead Quaker friend, this extract begins midway through
his encounter with his Aunt Eve who died when the Poet was
10 years old.

Words stifled inwards as human thinking failed.
This woman—frail, long dead—had been my aunt,
Long suffering skivvy, domestic work nailed;

For education, there had been no chance,
But in compassion, here her heart was huge;
And now in radiance shining, brilliance.

‘My dear Aunt Eve,’ I blurted, moved to hug;
All feelings for her I had had, renewed
And magnified in one long heart’s deluge

Which was as some dam breaking—unsubdued:
Original limitations, pent-up, blocked,
Now free to flow, not tethered, stuck or glued.

No more sub-conscious thoughts, for here unlocked;
And all their power now in conscious rule:
To feel such energy surfacing, shocked.

I reached across to love her to the full,
But as I did a voice—firm—said, ‘Not yet!
You still are in your flesh, and Eve’s pure soul;

Believe her essence much too subtle, fleet
For you to catch or benefit therefrom,
Until, at last, you fully pay your debt.’

I looked across—the other—Dr. Johnson,
Stentorious still, and still larger than life:
But amplified, blessed with all his guilt gone.

‘What thinking, James—me virgin? But had wife!
Ah! Tetty, dear—whom I lost far too soon,
And lived forever after with what-ifs?

Like trying to love the man-in-the-moon
Is how I was amidst the shades below:
Their perfidy in Earth’s concomitant gloom!

The mind can only rest—I told you so—
Upon stability of truth, and here it is:
My scrofula’s vanished! And now I know

As I am known—all things, all images,
Belong to Him, and in Him we rejoice,
Converging all our thoughts in line with His.’

His light-soaked eyes were louder than his voice;
Infectious in their way, my spirit soared
To see, to hear this warrior—old war horse

Indeed—from erstwhile, whose Dictionary roared
Its truth on that sub-lunar world we knew:
Such truths—we laughed—even when it had erred!

We laughed and laughed, and then it stopped; on cue,
As it were. Joy gave way to sensible
Advice the great doctor would now bestow.

‘You wonder rightly,’ he said, ‘what God’s will
For your mother is, as you left her there:
Minding your father, trying to unkill

Her soul, which she had lacerated bare
Throughout her life. Another, sure, must say;
But let me show you what I do see here.’

With that his hands seemed conjurers—with rays;
And where they pointed to, drew my rapt gaze:
A place … inverted sublime of hell’s haze …

But miniature, reduced, forever razed;
Reminder, almost wholly out of mind,
Perplexing not one whit those heaven raised

So high. But those … but those who fell behind …
I saw it: Virgo A, monstrous Black Hole,
Drawing into its drain all Evil’s blind,

All lacking light, and all destroying soul—
Immense to me in flesh, it seemed, so strong,
So powerful, irresistible its pull.

But then the doctor laughed; I’d got it wrong!
One wave: his hand seemed casting some fresh deal
And what I saw no longer threatened … changed.

‘You see,’ the doctor said, ‘All through His will;
Their smoke goes up forever, James … forever;
What seemed so solid, now’s a fairy tale—

Evil is not; or weighs to God a feather;
Its dragon’s scales weightless beside his power
By which He holds all things—all things!—together.

Their smoke will not contaminate one flower
Of heaven—void of threat, threading their way
Merely to evidence their sullen lour’s

Perpetual rout before His glorious sway.’
I saw him looking mesmerised—elapsed
Already, darkness and its desperate day;

Elsewhere his marvellous mind gripped round and wrapped
His object of desire into his own depths,
As if appearing there by his thoughts trapped:

Which meant his Tetty dear, ready and prepped,
To always be his love and be beside:
Joyous, adoring, and adored in sets

Of alternating bursts; no darkness hid
Their waves, so that I saw her living there
In Johnson’s heart—and with it—one smile slid

Across her face rejoicing I was here
Before my time through that great God of grace;
And glad she was I saw them, happy pair.

‘Report it back’, was messaged on her face,
‘To worlds below that hunger still for war
And misery, who never seek for peace.

My Sam no longer leaves his books ajar:
So much he loves me, so much we are one;
As Linda wills you … blessed in her higher star.’

She vanished then, but like sweet cinnamon
Whose clinging smell lives on the clothes we wear,
So I, with her love infused, overcome,

Knew not that which was fitting to declare.
But as I pondered—the Lord knows how long—
Johnson himself resumed his form, stood there.

‘One thing,’ he said, ‘about which all are wrong:
The eunuchs in heaven forget their grief,
They truly do—no progeny prolongs

Their name on Earth, but then the Earth is brief.
Remember His promise He made back then?
Dry trees, too, have memorials in His keep?

A better name—enduring—a white stone,
Which you must look for yours, whose reparation
Far outweighs such suffering as once was done

Through barren impotence and desperation.’
Another came forward as he withdrew;
His childless state required no expiation

Further, for Eve appeared. My heart she knew:
‘The greatest losses have but one design:
If understood aright, which is by few—

And you, you know, for you have seen the sign:
This butterfly behind your back who hovers,
Awaits you patient on that higher plane.’

She smiled so sweetly then; blessings uncovered
To me, for me, and willing that I go—
Be moved—to find that height where One great Mover

Is. But, I swung around and had to know
(Like Orpheus), that that delight was there:
Before across the barren landscape’s flow

I’d seen him flutter—beyond reach and care:
Now aerial, upwards, soaring he went,
All dazzling gold, flecked blue, impossibly rare.


Scrofula: Dr. Johnson suffered from it all his life
Tetty: Dr. Johnson’s wife, an older woman who died long before him; they had no children together. Their relationship was complex and there are various views on it.
My mother: the theme of the Poet’s mother is explored in HellWard Canto 2 and in StairWell Canto 2 and she appears in both. Here she is only mentioned.
Virgo A: M87 (or Messier 87) also called Virgo A or NGC4486, is a giant elliptical galaxy in the constellation Virgo whose nucleus contains a black hole, the first ever to be directly imaged. Virgo A is the most powerful known source of radio energy among the thousands of galactic systems constituting the so-called Virgo Cluster. I am using its imagery as a negative counterpart to the creation of God, and specifically here, the constellation Virgo.
Their smoke goes up forever: Isaiah 34 and Revelation 18 and 19; also, Genesis 19
white stone: Revelation 2
Linda: the Poet’s wife and Muse
eunuchs/dry trees/memorials: Isaiah 56
This butterfly: emerges first in StairWell Canto 3 and is a recurring motif.
Orpheus: who ignoring the warning of Hades that he mustn’t look back, did so, and so lost Persephone. The Poet’s turning causes the butterfly who was with him to fly off.



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 “StairWell.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog. To subscribe to his brief, free and monthly poetry newsletter, contact him at James@motivationalmaps.com

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24 Responses

  1. ABB

    The increase in rhyming perfection is really evident in this canto, James. It is impressive to see the incremental way this is proceeding—takes a lot of discipline.

    I appreciate that, as there is less action and more philosophizing, the emotional shock value and thrilling quality of Hell is being replaced by profundity and sublimity.

    The idea of the black hole, Virga A, as a drain of evil and “inverted sublime of hell’s haze” is very imaginative and a fascinating reflection on the topic. Introducing the topic of evil into heaven is something unexpected that more sentimental authors do not tackle; capturing heaven’s perfection in a way that is believable and not cliche is difficult.

    It was great to see Dr. Johnson show up and discourse on the subject. I especially like the stanza:
     Evil is not; or weighs to God a feather;
    Its dragon’s scales weightless beside his power
    By which He holds all things – all things! – together.

    • Paul Martin Freeman

      “increase in rhyming perfection”?

      ABB, you shouldn’t take the mickey. He’s doing his best.

      • ABB

        Ha, I meant an increase in the proportion of perfect rhymes to near rhymes.

  2. James Sale

    Thanks Andrew – appreciate your appreciation! Yes, I am not sure whether on this Earth one can be fully rid of the presence of evil which is why I allude to Revelation and their ‘smoke that goes forever up’ – I see that as a kind of eternal memorial to the victory of Christ – one that even heaven itself does not take away, although of course God Himself does comment that their sins – our sins – He will remember no more. It’s a paradox: how can the eternal God who knows everything not remember? In that aporetic moment, the Muse may appear!

  3. Michael Pietrack

    James, I enjoyed this extract with its real emotion. As you so properly described, I recently felt that damn of emotions break free, not even realizing so much as been pent up. Truth and Beauty, well done.

    • James Sale

      Ha ha ha! Thanks Michael – glad to see the Psalms abounding! Mind you, have you noticed? None of them seem to rhyme!!! Heck – must be awful poetry – still, I like them – hey! I love them! And what they have to say is so important. But funnily enough, along with all the importance (Truth), they are so beautiful too.

  4. Roy Eugene Peterson

    The immense power of your vocabulary and deep sentimental feelings for the women in your poem are heartwarming and heartfelt homages. Continuing with the tercet rich rhymes is both wonderful and mesmerizing as I read with rapid bated breath. Your interpretations of the images of heaven and the thoughts of the divine made me pause and consider my own concepts. In short, this is another masterpiece for the ages.

  5. James Sale

    Thanks Roy – you are really kind. One cannot get enough of thinking about the Divine and it is, of course, impossible to exhaust the subject for, the highest reality is the eternally unthinkable! I am glad you found it mesmerising: something I think poetry should aspire to do – weave a circle round him thrice!

  6. Brian A. Yapko

    James, I much appreciate this continuation of a fascinating and moving journey of discovery — an internal movement towards insight but presented (ironically) through the mechanism of material and character-driven inhabitants of Heaven. What I mean by this is that we know Heaven to be immaterial but for you (as for Dante) it nevertheless yields various personages and experiences which I believe are [poetic translations of a metaphysical reality into terms we lowly humans can actually understand. Along these lines, I especially like the lines which address evil:

    Evil is not; or weighs to God a feather;
    Its dragon’s scales weightless beside his power
    By which He holds all things—all things!—together.

    I hope fervently that this is so.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Brian – I am glad these lines resonate with you; they seem to resonate with ABB too, and it is a hope devoutly to be wished, especially in these evil times when – to be honest – the apocalypse seems near. Then again, it seemed near in previous centuries, only now we literally do have the power to totally destroy the whole Earth. I haven’t counted this myself but I read that the phrase from God, ‘Fear not …’ occurs 365 times in the Bible – so one for each day!

  7. Evan Mantyk

    The introduction of the Black Hole is ingenious and takes Dante’s original fascination with the stars to the next level. What do black holes mean? How do they fit into the Creator’s creation? These are important questions to ask, or at least interesting ones, but no one seems to seriously ask them except for the likes of James Sale.

    • James Sale

      Yes, like you Evan, I am intrigued by these seemingly ‘pointless’ holes of negativity, but which obviously play a massive role in the construction of the universe. Like you, too, since I don’t believe in a purely materialistic understanding of the cosmos, then everything has some symbolic significance, and the profoundest significance of all is always to be found in morality.

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    This poetry (and it is of a high order, like Dante’s) is heavily laden with meaning, and dense with possible interpretations. The triple involution of what the figure of “Virgo” means compelled me to read the entire thing a few times, and I would have been helpless without the appended notes.

    I was moved by the speaker’s inability (despite his intense love) to embrace his Aunt Eve, because of the great gulf that lies between the living and the dead. It reminded me of the Pearl Poet’s dream vision, where he was forbidden to cross the boundary between himself and the beatified soul of his lost daughter.

    The final tercet in this extract is crystalline in its sublimity.

    And what a delight to see old Dr. Johnson again!

    • James Sale

      Thanks Joe – your knowledge of great literature is so extensive (and your own work so crafted) that praise from you is a very welcome tonic. As I get further up, it’s not that I am trying to be obscure, but inevitably the writing needs to address new complexities; it was Evan who first suggested Notes in reading one of the StairWell cantos and that has become a feature ever since. Indeed, I will need eventually, if I live, to re-issue HellWard with Notes too!

      It was a delight to meet old Dr Johnson myself! So glad you appreciated that – and proleptically, there are some more characters coming whom I think you will enjoy. But most importantly, the emotions; that you responded to my efforts to embrace my Aunt Eve tells me that this is on the right track, for if the emotions are not engaged, what is the point? Thanks again.

  9. Margaret Coats

    “Like sweet cinnamon”–a lovely infusion left by Tetty to perfume your Virgo canto. Ecclesiasticus 24:19-20 reads, “I gave a fragrance like cinnamon and aromatic balm; I gave sweetness like the best myrrh.” This becomes a “chapter” applied to the Blessed Virgin in her Little Office.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Margaret – love that reference you give, and that it applies to the Blessed Virgin. As Roy above comments: there are ‘deep sentimental feelings for the women in your poem’ and as we ascend further this only increases, since – through a woman – the salvation of the whole world was possible. He who denigrates women, denigrates his own existence. Glad you found it a ‘lovely infusion’.

  10. The Mindflayer

    This is such a phenomenal piece of narrative poetry. The English Cantos goes from strength to strength. I particularly love the rhyming, which seems to have sparked a few debates (!), but the reason I love the rhyming is that it fulfils the true purpose of rhyme, which is to link otherwise disparate ideas together.

    For example, in the below stanza:

    I reached across to love her to the full,
    But as I did a voice—firm—said, ‘Not yet!
    You still are in your flesh, and Eve’s pure soul;

    The concept of fullness and the soul are linked in the pararhyme of “full” and “soul”. However, equally, the poet’s inability to embrace Eve – because she is pure spirit – is reflected in the fact the rhyme is not perfect! This is really genius-level writing, where the language and form mirrors the meaning and narrative.

    Similarly, there is another brilliant rhyme in terms of narrative symbolism to be found in the below three lines that cross two stanzas (something which terse rima facilitates wonderfully):

    The eunuchs in heaven forget their grief,
    They truly do—no progeny prolongs

    Their name on Earth, but then the Earth is brief.

    Here, the choice of a perfect and masculine (monosyllabic) rhyme produces the very effect of brevity that is being described in connection with earthly existence. Truly sublime.

    • James Sale

      Dear Mindflayer, your understanding of rhyme, function and purpose, is profound, and happy is the poet who finds a critic who ‘gets’ it! The notion of “where the language and form mirrors the meaning and narrative” is exactly what I am always attempting to achieve, and clearly in this instance – at least for you – I have succeeded. A rhyme (and for that matter, a meter) cannot be good or bad merely because it is perfect or ‘imperfect’ (para-slant-near-assonantal-consonantal et al), but only in the context of the meaning, historical associations, etymologies and adjacent words which bring out its latency: the latency is the power that is beyond the mere dictionary definition. As you point out, rightly, conjoining disparate ideas, enabling some fresh perspective on what was otherwise stale or cliched. So thanks for your meticulous commentary: picking up the full/soul and the use of ‘brief’ is – in my view – extremely perceptive.

  11. Anthony Watts

    I’m interested to see that I’m not the only one to explore the symbolic potential of black holes. I once wrote a children’s fantasy novella in which this passage occurs (a mysterious new teacher has arrived at a school. He enters the classroom the science teacher has just left and sees what has been written on the whiteboard):

    “‘Not even light can escape from a black hole,’ he read aloud; then added, more to himself than to the class, ‘No, indeed, it cannot. But darkness… now darkness can. But then Mr Thorne would not know about the power of darkness, would he? After all, it is not his subject.’”

    • James Sale

      Thank you Anthony – your fantasy novella for children sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would have liked early on; as I have a new granddaughter, I shall think about how to get a copy in a few years’ time!

      • Anthony Watts

        Congratulations on your new granddaughter, James. My book hasn’t actually been published, but I’m thinking of turning it into an e-Book, which I will happily send to you. I’ve also written a sequel and am working on another to make a trilogy (if I ever finish it).

  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, what a multi-layered marvel of creation and meaning. It bears several readings to unpick the intricate golden threads for further inspection… which I will do. What strikes me is how you are able to weave relatable and heartfelt emotion through the literary density of the piece. I simply love these lines:

    ‘My dear Aunt Eve,’ I blurted, moved to hug;
    All feelings for her I had had, renewed
    And magnified in one long heart’s deluge

    Which was as some dam breaking—unsubdued:
    Original limitations, pent-up, blocked,
    Now free to flow, not tethered, stuck or glued.

    As an aunt returning from visiting her beloved niece and nephew, my heart swelled at the sentiment. Beautiful!

    • James Sale

      Thank you Susan – really appreciate your words, especially’ heartfelt emotion through the literary density of the piece.’ It’s that ‘awkward’ combination that I like to think we all want to get: the simplicity of the heart not overwhelmed by the intricacies of the head. If we can get that, poetry can soar. Thanks again.


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