Archive for June, 2010

…as T.S. Eliot puts it:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

behind the hands that wove

the intolerable shirt of flame

which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire,

consumed either by fire or fire.

It takes great faith to open oneself to this purifying fire, to believe that it is the power of love. The extraordinary thing is that it is often imagined as a fire of roses. Eliot concludes Little Gidding, from which I have just quoted, with these lines:

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

into the crowned knot of fire

and the fire and the rose are one.

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald describes the fire of roses into which the princess must plunge her hands to be burned and purified. And Dante uses this metaphor in The Divine Comedy. Where did the fire of roses originate? I supsect it goes back beyond human memory.

Dare we open ourselves to this purifying fire … ?

Madeleine L’Engle
Walking on Water:
Reflections on Faith and Art
(1980, rpt. 2001)

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Like as the armed knight
appointed to the field
with this world will I fight
and Faith shall be my shield.

Anne Askew
from a ballad (1849)

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I love the poetry of Dante Aligheri, his Vita Nuova and Commedia Divina, better known in English as The New Life and The Divine Comedy. The latter book, an epic, consists of three separate works, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, and tells the story of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey through the Christian otherworld following first Virgil, then his beloved Beatrice, and finally Saint Bernard of Clairvaux into the Heavenly Rose and the Presence of God. I’ve taught the works of Dante for many years, and I learn more from Dante the Poet every time I re-read his poetry.

Just the other day, I was talking to my friend Bob, and when he enthusiastically agreed with me that Dante is the greatest poet who ever lived, I was delighted! (Perhaps it is no surprise that Bob feels this way as he is Italian … ) Then, only yesterday, I was talking to my friend Ann Meyer, and she mentioned the development of a new website with the complete Vita Nuova and Commedia on it … illustrated with artwork inspired by Dante’s imagination down through the centuries … and allowing the reader to create a personalized, annotated version of Dante’s two greatest works. (I’ll have to tell Bob!) It’s called myDante.

I’ve just begun my exploration of the site, and I am enjoying it tremendously. It’s really beautiful, like a medieval manuscript, and the images are from some of my favorite illustrators: Doré and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as well as others. But it is of course the words of the poet that captivate my memory and imagination, as when Dante writes in one place, “In that part of the book of my memory before the which is little that can be read, there is a rubric, saying: incipit vita nuova …” and in another place:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter-death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.

I cannot clearly say how I had entered the wood;
I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

But when I’d reached the bottom of a hill-
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear-

I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.

Dante, Inferno 1-18
trans. Allen Mandelbaum

It possible to read these words on the site as well as Mark Musa’s translation beside the original Italian. You can listen to a sound file of the Italian verses being read aloud — it’s beautiful! It’s also possible to keep on online journal/blog with your personally annotated copy of Dante’s works, too. There is no cost to the readers who become a part of the myDante project, so anyone with computer access who wants to join and read together in community can. In every way, I believe, this new approach to Dante has the potential to draw a new generation into Dante’s world to experience his sorrow, his triumph, and ultimately, his joy.

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What lovely aftermath
is painted in your dust.
You were led through the flaming
core of the earth,
through its stony shell,
webs of farewell in the transient measure.

blessed night of all beings!
The weights of life and death
sink down with your wings
on the rose
which wanders with the light ripening homewards.

What lovely aftermath
is painted in your dust.
What royal sign
in the secret of the air.

Nelly Sachs
trans. Ruth and Matthew Mead
in Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch (2006)

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