Three times, recently, I’ve posted my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m exploring why a long poem coming up on its 700th birthday, one with a form and a theology that few people care about any longer, should have such enormous contemporary impact. The earlier stages of my investigation are here, here, and here, and again I have to thank Southwest Review, where these ideas appeared in a different form. Now, Paradise, with a sketch from Sandro Botticelli to begin with.
The Comedy’s last canticle demands a move away from the familiar. The realm of the Blest must come across as something else again, and it does, with glowing cross-galaxy swoops and landings that suggest computer animation, centuries ahead of its time. But then the subject has no truck with time; it exists outside time. Nor should anybody confuse actual Paradise with its faint simulacrum, the Earthly Paradise. The flowers and waters of the Empyrean, in the final cantos, recall the peak of Purgatory, but they’ve gone unearthly.
A key example, both for what’s special about Paradise and for my larger argument, is the “stream” that forms the border to Highest Heaven, in Canto XXX. In keeping with the mad experiment Dante conducts throughout the canticle, this stream is not a stream. Rather it’s a ribbon of mosaic, now jewels and now flames, an infinite flow of innocent sensuality and envy-free abundance. All this has been distilled, somehow, from the Celestial Rose beyond. Continue reading
Struggling to deliver for BIG OTHER, I’ve kept coming back to the following, on Dante and his Divine Comedy. In different form, longer, the essay first appeared in Southwest Review. My thanks to the editor, Willard Spiegelman, for allowing me to adapt the piece, and to John M. and other OTHERs, for urging me on. I’ll put up what I’ve got to say up in portions, one every two or three days. For starters:
I crown and miter you lord of yourself!
— Virgil to Dante, as they exit Purgatory
(Musa translation, Canto XXVII, line 142)
Those who read this will likely participate in the eighth century of discussion concerning The Divine Comedy. Clean copies of the finished canticles, with all their intellectual sizzle and range, their right-on humanity and intertextual strutwork, and above all their poetic command, flexible, profound, precise — with all that intact already, the completed work began to circulate in 1320, the last year of its author’s life. Yet with 2020 less than a decade off, in every creative arena, “the Poem” (as the scholar Charles Singleton liked to call it) looms as an ever-more-common referent.
I’m not the only one to have noticed. Joan Acocella, in The New Yorker, beefed up her ’07 review of the Hollander translation of Paradiso (with commentary, 742 pages) with a look at 20th Century Dante criticism. She assumed that readers would go along. Continue reading
A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences
must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).
“And more than once, in their middle years, she and King Shahryar had pretended in bed that her life was on the line again, as it had been for the first thousand nights of their story — a touch of the old fire, the familiar terror of once upon a time.”
— from The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, by John Barth