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Category Archives: Poetry

DISSIDENT ABOUT DANTE

DANTE AND HIS STATUS

To have problems with either Dante or Shakespeare might be to have problems with western civilisation itself. According to T. S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third”.

If you can ignore Goethe, for literature that may be true enough  – in music we might substitute Bach and Wagner – but what renders Dante and Shakespeare a crucial pair  is not just their similarity in terms of poetic brilliance but their complementary difference. Dante aspires heavenwards as surely as a gothic spire, while Shakespeare, world-conquering as a Renaissance mariner, explores outwards. One is explicitly religious, the other implicitly (as in Macbeth).

Some people, especially the Irish, see the two poets in competition and keep asking who wins? Having lost both their historic language and culture, the bard’s linguistic freedom appeals in one direction while the architectonics of Dante in another. The Catholic side of Ireland would like to think Dante wins by a slight margin, which in effect he does if a rare poetic sublimity as opposed to general elevation of tone is the consideration.

T.S. Eliot felt nothing in western poetry quite compares to parts of the Paradiso and certainly little enough in English does – the nearest comparison would be a piece influenced by Dante, Shelley’s Epipsychidion, with its waves of orgasmic emotion. The Protestant Yeats allows Dante to be the “greatest imagination in Christendom”. But here my unusual problems with Dante begin and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I should pursue to its source my at times real irritation with him. It has led me to a radical conclusion about what and  how the West thinks and believes, things which, beyond his originality and encyclopaedic range, Dante often simply reflects almost too well.

A PARADISO PROBLEM

Because it is great and sublime poetry I should like to like Dante, but as regards especially the Paradiso, I can only manage reading it in short spurts to get through it at all because something about it grates and jars and it gives me a hard-to-describe feeling of being cheated.

It must be immediately stated this is not, or not fully, based on reactions either Protestant or modern. It’s true that Protestants only began to discover Dante after the hauntingly beautiful illustrations of William Blake caught their attention two centuries ago and they have usually hesitated before a Purgatario (arguably the most charming and colourful part of the Commedia) they don’t believe in. However, many read it as just symbolic of a “sanctification” process associated more with this life than the next. And in some respects, especially in his criticism of the popes and Rome and given his quite extensive biblical literacy, Dante can anyway strike a quite “Protestant” note.

Nor is my problem the “modern” one which regards the whole of Dante as terribly “medieval” and its Paradiso, drenched in light, as good as someone on drugs gone bonkers. (The drugs theory of Dante’s inspiration owes something to the fact the poet belonged to the guild of apothecaries who also functioned as booksellers  in Florence for the latest manuscripts. So it’s possible Dante enhanced a natural visionary sense with chemicals).

The fact is you can be a modern unbeliever and still be entranced by Dante like Samuel Beckett for whom Dante was some of his preferred reading, and  atheist Clive James who has produced his own critically praised translation and who says somewhere that if there is any work should qualify as a bible, it should be Dante’s Commedia. Certainly there are people for whom Dante is a kind of bible. There is for example a Daily Dante Lenten Discipline of reading him!

But with that kind of recommendation I am a bit nearer to my visceral problem with the poet. He challenges, denies or revises at times to the point of near blasphemy, everything from scripture to the nature of inspiration and the poetic role itself in order to unfold, and often impose his vision.

I remain to be convinced that Petrarch’s cool response to Dante and his legacy marks simple resentment and jealousy as opposed to discretion. I suggest that as a poet with himself at times a “prophetic” message, he was simply unhappy with things Dante and his opus represent; and these did have critics from the first. But the sheer popular success of Dante as a new style poet employing  the vernacular would soon render his legacy hard for especially any Italian to question without bringing the house down.

The very language Italians now speak is the dialect of Florence which, by a nineteenth century political fiat it was decided, because of Dante, would be privileged above all other dialects as the national tongue. And for all time the vignettes of Dante’s cosmic journey have captured essential Italian character as surely as his contemporary, Masaccio, captured still recognizable Italian looks. Dante is taught in schools like so much bible and Shakespeare. So many of his lines are undeniably haunting like the famous “E’n la sua volantade e nostra pace / ell e quel mare al qual tutto se move “, (in his will is our peace/ that is the sea towards which all being moves”) words which seem to come from afar, drifting like a bird over a bright scene.

PROPHETIC SEEING OR FAKING JUST WHAT?

So altogether Dante can’t be avoided, so much so that as a national or international treasure he can scarcely be criticized either. He himself, with shameless vanity, declares himself as early as Inferno’s Limbo region, equal companion with Homer, Ovid, Virgil and others. He doesn’t go so far as to say he is the equal of the biblical prophets; he nevertheless as good as assumes their mantle as though he was one of them, especially as (even while admitting he has forgotten and can’t describe much of it), he claims to have seen or visited heaven itself. Biblically at least, it is only prophets who have been admitted to heaven and the council of Yahweh (Jer 23:18).

Any errors or memory lapses are plastered over and concealed, with exclamations “I saw, I saw” as though he really did see. Affirmations get chanted in tones fit for Isaiah and offered as though pure scripture …. at the same time as the poet incongruously calls upon Apollo to be his muse and evidently thinks so highly of this figure of pagan myth, he even seems to approve his cruel skinning of his musical rival. the satyr Myrsus. While obviously I am not Dante, I chance to be one of the very few today who has produced anything like visionary/metaphysical poetry and I know I could not, whether seriously or in play, treat of inspiration in Dante’s cavalier manner. One stresses as a sort of honest courtesy to readers what any inspiration means. (1)

By the time Dante arrives at the Paradiso, he has learned some lessons, but the overall impression is still of a rather self-glorifying and at times unforgiving soul. The enraged cursing of the already damned Filippo Argenti in Canto 8 of Inferno and still more the treatment of Bocca in Canto 32 where Dante actively tortures a hideously damned soul whom he impels to speak through a promise he doesn’t keep, has something obscene about it, while having Virgil exclaim in praise of the poet’s rage against Argenti, “Blessed the womb that bore you….” is disconcerting if not distasteful.

In presenting himself and/or Beatrice as redeemed, enlightened spokespersons for the inspiration of a world in spiritual darkness, Dante is necessarily compelled into some painful exaggerations or scripture-ignoring distortions at times preposterous. For example in Paradiso Canto 21, Beatrice (who has become Dante’s mentor in place of Virgil and as a vehicle of grace is teaching him including through her celestial beauty), become brighter than the sun itself in the heaven of Saturn, can’t now smile at Dante lest he be burned to a crisp. It is not possible, especially not before the general resurrection of believers, that Beatrice could be either so powerful or transformed as to do this. Dante has already accorded her power beyond perhaps the angels.

IMAGINATION AND IMAGE

But in modification of this severe judgement and to repeat Yeats, the latter was, however unintentionally, right to define Dante is the imagination of Christendom. Yeats meant this approvingly but “imagination” can have a downside and be deceptive. In religion it can bolster the vain dreams of the false prophets (Jer 23:16) and Dante largely reflects directions of the western imagination  to whose shape his vision conforms. It does so even when it makes assumptions of a kind which turn the Judaeo-Christian tradition on its head and psychologically into a kind of idolatrous expression of soul over spirit.

Dante’s is the supreme religious literary expression of a larger western idolatry of the image, and thus of the desire to see rather than to hear God, to contemplate as opposed to interact with God and to shift ordinary religious experience into a matter of seeking favours and contacting with intermediaries from saints to angels rather than deity. Dante himself embarks on his saving quest through the intervention of no less than Beatrice, St Lucy and the Virgin working together. What he discovers  about God is arguably less than what one might derive from the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets.

While, as said, Dante like many people today claiming NDEs, admits that he has forgotten much of his paradise vision and that he can only reconstruct it, the reconstruction is too often unsatisfactory no matter how glorious the poetic tones and images that sustain it. It corresponds neither to what the scripture he otherwise often refers to in the Commedia indicates about the afterlife, nor to the kind of things we might reasonably generalize from the diverse testimonies of NDE experiences today.

Nor does it satisfy the ethical sense or spiritual feeling to read of the dubious persons supposedly enjoying high blessedness in heaven like for example the emperor Justinian (seen as super corrupt and even demon possessed by some Greek Christians according to Procopius’ The Secret History). Numbers of Dante’s glorified notables have been chosen largely to fit the poet’s political theories and bolster his underlying conviction about the need for a secular saviour. This should be someone in the style of Emperor Henry V11 who had inconveniently died, someone independent of the corruptions of the papacy and ruling within an ideally church/state divided world, fulfilling the greater destiny of Rome first outlined by Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

ODD HEAVENLY CITIZENSHIP

Because the emperor Constantine’s established toleration of Christianity rendered the Virgilian ideal at least possible, this ruler (albeit criticized by Dante’s Justinian for transferring the imperial capital from  West to East ), is still glorified in heaven. The level of distinction is in blind disregard  that this emperor only formally converted on his deathbed, having largely used the church to further his position and support imperial unity, while he himself was guilty of murdering his wife and son. Arguably Constantine also stands as chief inspiration of the evil of most subsequent holy wars because of his dream that he could win battle victory under the sign of the cross. (Here, if ever, was a lying dream no Christians should have ever endorsed, given its source in a clearly unrighteous person not even at the time adhering to the faith).

The Holy War ideal is nonetheless celebrated in Dante’s heaven of Mars where knights of Christ, crusaders etc, have their reward. The whole of Paradiso is divided up into heavens of the seven planets (lowest moon and highest Saturn) in accordance with some notion of universal “justice” which with “love” should rule all things including celestial cycles. Saturn as a symbol of highest heaven below the Empyrean is odd given that across history, and certainly in medieval times, Saturn was a devil planet, source of misfortune, and misery. Dante places in this exalted sphere the dubiously uncorrupted St Peter Damien, a fanatical ascetic whose enthusiastic condemnation of gays had inquisitorial effects. St Dominic, a major promoter of the Inquisition, is found in Dante’s heaven of the sun.

In fairness, it would obviously be hard for anyone from poet to theologian to convincingly imagine the divisions and rewards of heaven; all would probably be unsatisfactory. Dante’s celestial levels at which souls are able to manifest to him (they really dwell in the Empyrean and elsewhere) are a sort of appearance only within the larger celestial rose, an exquisite garden overseen by the Virgin for Christ. It may sound all terribly mystical, but Dante’s distribution of bliss and glory is really quasi-philosophical; and as opposed to the would-be objective, schematic arrangements that ensues, it would have been closer to Christian tradition to have simply housed souls according to either or both of

a) how closely the individual had been to fulfilling the divine will and generally “knowing” the heart and mind of God (like the Beloved Disciple or the prophet Jeremiah to whom some of his contemporaries compared Jesus) or

b) emphasising the qualities of the planets over their order outwards to the Empyrean. Thus the poet could have put the heaven of Venus (signifying love) at the summit, if only because the Christ of the last things, the apocalyptic Christ, is self-declared as “the Bright Morning Star” (i.e.Venus) who has overcome Venus as Lucifer who is source of evil). Or again, since the Paradiso describes a progressive increase of light, Dante could have placed the Sun at the planetary summit.

One of the weakest points of the celestial organization (indeed of the Commedia’s entire system of value judgement at its three levels) is exemplified by the treatment of Cunizza da Ramono within   the level of Venus. Having earlier doomed to the hell of incontinence the unfortunate Francesca da Rimini, who surely had some case for divine forgiveness, Dante lets off the also real life Cunizza lightly, even glorifies her. A sort of Good Wife of Bath figure, she had had four husbands and two lovers, and left the first husband to become mistress of the poet Sordello, (whom Dante meets up with in Purgatorio). She is permitted to rejoice and she even laughs that she has forgiven herself because she has at last found the meaning of love in its divine aspect and thus she can make what was her occasion of sin the basis of redeemed life.

Ignoring that one could well stress God alone forgives sins (Mk 22:7) and that all redemption has something to do with “predestination” (as higher up even St Bernard concedes) never human choice alone, Dante’s depiction has to be understood against his system of values more generally. According to this – and it would have seemed more meaningful to medieval persons imposed on by tradition and parental authority – we have an inborn nature that must be fulfilled. Denied, it becomes unhealthy and will run to evil. This is true enough, as is also a belief that if God forgives us we need to forgive ourselves too. Even so, here and at points throughout the Commedia, Dante’s treatment of evil finishes over-rationalized, at times shallow vis this emphasis (perhaps never more so than when he attributes what today we would call homosexuality to mostly bad wives). To cite an Italian example against him, Italy today is the chief centre of revived practices of exorcism. Its exorcists would be the first to insist evil can run deep, and some bad impulses can even result from such as occult involvements and family curses, a case of the sins of the fathers visited to the fourth generation ( Ex 20:5). Much more is involved than a few thwarted impulses.

MARIA AND BERNARD OBSESSIONS

Having read and written in the past on this subject of exorcism and its effectiveness (2), I would further add that the effectiveness of exorcism (some are carried on over years!) can be weakened by another factor which features as one of the stand-out contradictions of the Paradiso and which I would associate with especially St Bernard of Clairvaux.

At almost its highest point of the Paradiso, from the Empyrean emerges Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard is one of the most important figures in the Paradiso because it is his prayers to the Virgin permit the poet to “see” God. However, even if by divine grace Dante was granted some kind of visionary glimpse of the Beyond, we can rest assured he did not see St Bernard in highest heaven. Not only do the gospels famously declare “The first shall be last and the last, first” but Bernard could be grateful if he was even permitted the level of Dante’s moon.

At one time the almost uncrowned ruler of Europe for sheer influence with its rulers, as a preacher of the Crusades that caused the unnecessary death of thousands and an interferer in lives – his unrelenting attacks upon the philosopher Abelard as a heretic was behind the attack on him and castration, Bernard was one of the maddest of the Catholic mystics. This was less because he was so unwashed his fragrance was hard for his devotees to manage, but because he was an eccentric who believed the Virgin had fed him drops of her breast milk. Bernard couldn’t doubt this and nor could Dante and all devotees  because had not Bernard declared one only needed to have the Virgin perpetually in one’s mind never to be deceived?

Bernard’s devotion to the Virgin which Dante so trendily follows, helped form a vision which turned the West towards a cult of the Virgin exceeding anything prior to it. As in Dante’s vision, Christ for Bernard, though notionally acknowledged as redeemer, becomes as good as subordinate to an all-encompassing vision of the Virgin’s glory, “empress” of heaven.

Standard Catholic teaching is that the Virgin is venerated, not worshipped, but practically that can hardly be said to hold and one needn’t look far in the Paradiso to trace the effects of Bernard’s doctrines upon Dante’s representatively western/catholic spirituality as they are already dramatically present in the Purgatorio. In Canto 5 there is the case of Da Montefeltro the leader whose place of death was unknown but to whom the poet endeavours to supply an ending and a pious one to somebody religiously indifferent. Staggering towards the river losing his lifeblood.

There my sight failed me and my last word sped/ Forth in the name of Mary; there headlong/ I fell; there left only my body dead.

Hell shrieks in rage at this saving of this soul, in effect by Mary at a very last minute call. Here if ever is the neo-medieval gospel according to St Bernard. Last minute conversions are not a feature of biblical record, the individual is supposed to be working out their salvation in the virtual purgatory of this life (Phil 2:12); but there is undeniably the case of the thief on the cross – whose same day transfer to Paradise itself bespeaks a system of grace in which the toils and waiting of Purgatory have no place. The thief however makes appeal to the crucified Jesus, not to the Mary beneath the cross. This is entirely consistent with two lead statements from earliest tradition and which exclude Mary from any salvation equation: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved “ (Rom 10:13) and “there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

SEEING AND APPROACHING GOD: BEATIFIC VISION

Dante’s Bernard-inspired distortions of the original doctrine, are not limited to this rather crucial point. They enter to infect the whole aim, attitude and basis of his Paradiso vision, which is to “see” God, the Beatific Vision. In Canto 32 we read, what by some standards could be called pious blasphemy, the following words of Bernard to Dante: “See that face resembling Christ/closer than all; for that bright light alone/can make you fit to look on Christ”. This is then followed by around a page of the bliss and glories of Mary as the angels chant “Salve Regina” to heaven’s own “empress”.

There is much that’s between ignorant and shocking here. Fit to see Christ? Dante and Bernard should be aware that in numerous instances like 1 Pet 1,2 the original message it is the Spirit who sanctifies and prepares whether souls or church to become faithful disciples or devoted bride of Christ. Moreover – at least theoretically – there should never anyway be any problems about “seeing” Christ any time, anywhere.

As the human face of God, as divine incarnation and mediator, Jesus is simply available, as in his lifetime, to be approached. In Revelation the redeemed of many nations plainly see the enthroned Redeemer as a matter of course (Rev 7:9,10). Nothing could be further from the author of Hebrews with its “let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Heb 4:16) than this remarkably over-awed approach to a Jesus so unavailable that it takes Bernard and the Virgin working together to make even the hope of seeing him possible. This is a whole new alternative religion and absolutely no longer one of “to God through Christ” than “to Christ through Mary” and in a way to render the Trinity virtually irrelevant save as Dante’s parting, suitably abstract and impersonal image of the intermeshed circles which sustain existence. This is scarcely Christianity; it is a colourful new form of neo-platonism.

And before briefly descending to Inferno level, reverting to the point made about weakness and contradiction introduced by the influential St Bernard, practically his Marian cult would successfully undermine fundamental spiritual energies of the faith. One arguably sees this in even the embarrassing failure of two modern popes to be able to exorcise. This was something which early Christians were well known for doing without prior permission of bishops and boards of clerics and in the name of Christ alone, not Mary and the saints under whose patronage, amid elaborate rituals, the exercise now exists to what is often its confusion – absurdly, modern exorcisms can function like therapy sessions that are carried on over years, never coming to any real conclusion, just as Dante never – quite – gets to see God despite the prayers of Bernard and the Virgin!

THE INFERNO

Even as a teenager when I first encountered Dante, I was disappointed with the conclusion of Inferno which has an almost pantomime Satan at the bottom of hell, tormenting not just Judas Iscariot but Brutus and Cassius. Surely this pair who rid the world of the tyrannical Julius Caesar, himself opposed by righteous individuals like Cicero (accorded a place in Limbo), couldn’t deserve the lowest point of hell for being “traitors”. Shouldn’t figures like, say, Caiaphas (who is higher up among the hypocrites) and Nero (who’s nowhere) be there? Of course it makes no sense – except that Dante is fixated on the need for a just imperial ruler and Brutus and Cassius interfered with the foundations of the empire he admires. But condemning the pair with Judas is like making Julius Caesar a Christ figure he very obviously wasn’t.

Which reminds us how much Dante’s is a political text and a semi-pagan one. The sins of hell are not organized as they could be according to, say, the ten commandments, but rather notions of virtue and vice as defined by Cicero and Aristotle (the latter being appropriated around the time by the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas). Thus the sins of love and lust can’t be covered by the circle of incontinence alone which carries the adulterous tragedy of Francesca da Rimini, but much further down hell will deal with seducers and panders under the head of Fraud. “Sodomites” and suicides are treated under the head of, and thus in the circle of, Violence because they have been “violent” against nature or the body. It all gets quite intricate and involved, more so than Purgatorio and Paradiso which have fewer sections. It also gets colder as Dante and Virgil descend rather than hotter, though sight is never really lost to effects of any nether gloom such as would apply to the nether gloom of especially Tartarus, prison of the fallen angels, that Dante doesn’t portray.

If Irish otherworld journeys influenced Purgatorio, it is believed the third century apocryphal Apocalypse of St Paul was the main inspiration for the Inferno and its gruesome, torture chamber type details and its icy lower depths. Necessarily so since the bible has little to say about hell apart from affirming its existence and declaring that (through a body of death rather than of resurrection), there is a gnashing of teeth and some torment by worms and by thirst, and then that at the end of time as we understand it, the Hell/Hades zone gets thrown into a lake of fire for “eternity”.

The Inferno is nonetheless truer than other parts of the Commedia to things we can know about the afterlife, if not from the Bible then negative NDEs. Those persons who report experiences of hell, frequently refer to pain and harm vented on them from tormenting demons. These demons moreover seem to torment people in relation to a single sin, or if demons don’t do that, the person torments themselves in relation to one besetting sin, like the alcoholic who is thirsting for and being burned by alcohol.

I struggled over this in my own poetic experiment, an attempt at an updated Danteque journey as in The Hell Passage (3). The poem drew upon especially one reported vision from South America of a visit to hell led there by Jesus. The sinners allegedly encountered on this journey sometimes had their besetting sin branded on them as surely as Dante can know the sinners and their sin by the circle they inhabit. Is this even likely, whether literally or more symbolically, since sin is of all kinds and is present in everyone?

FINAL IDENTITY TAGS

My (provisional) conclusion is that since hell is most essentially about separation from God and whatever makes for that, it could be that one besetting sin is what confirms that separation. And since everyone’s final identity is with and through God, in hell personal identity becomes whatever is not God. Alternatively some inhabitants are shown as branded (as none of Dante’s sinners are) not with a sin but with 666, evidently people who have taken the mark or who willingly would do so given the chance, an action which insures separation.

The activity of tormenting devils seems hardly credible or fair – if they are really fallen angels, why aren’t they themselves tormented? – but perhaps their role should be seen as the equivalent of biblical claims to the effect that (until finally overcome by the returning Christ) the world belongs to the realms of evil. Ultimate damnation would include the tormenting demons too. The final destination of damned souls is not Hades/Hell but the Lake of Fire, evidently a mirror of God who is “fire”, and entails an existence through God as fire but nothing else, hence God negatively experienced in proportion to the degree of spiritual separation.

Given how much Dante is prepared to send doubtful cases like Francesca da Rimini to hell and blast the already suffering damned, curiously, if generously, he is still concerned about who is lost and saved according to their beliefs. It prompts him to allow the good pagans Cato and Statius a place in Purgatory and the Trojan prince warrior Riphaeus even a place in heaven’s sphere of Jupiter for his righteousness. And it obviously pains Dante that Virgil has to return to the Limbo of the good pagans (among whom he includes that author of the arts of seduction, Ovid!). It was for this kind of juggling with doctrine some early critics considered Dante’s work heresy, but the salvation problem he wrestles with is and should always have been a non question.

Despite his wide reading in bible, Dante, like many to this day, never absorbed how St Paul teaches that ignorant pagans outside the Law will be judged “or perhaps excused” by their thoughts at the Last Judgement (Rom 2: 14,15). While undeniably the bible appears to assume that once the individual has heard and understood the gospel, they have responsibility for their decisions, no one is automatically damned for what they cannot even hope to know. Besides which, the whole subject of ultimate salvation is anyway subject to the statement, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Rom 9:15), which however is not a give-away. It is certainly no justification for notions that Dante sometimes borders on and that a modern Catholic mystic like Thomas Merton renders explicit, namely that each soul independently “chooses” whether they will be saved or damned.

READING DANTE TODAY

There are many benefits from reading Dante, and today perhaps especially from the enforced work of imagination which takes the reader outside of normal existence to hear people doing what everyone should periodically do, which is to assess their lives and motivations. The contemporary restlessness and materialism virtually imposed on everyone by media and the rat race, renders this imagining and self-distancing task increasingly difficult.

At the same time, we may also be drawn to awareness of something else we ought to know.  Dante is an imaginative summation of a particularly European way of perceiving reality but which is a distortion, at times even a negation of the Christianity it seeks to defend. There is a reason why deity for the poet, even as the love that moves all things, is so remote and abstract while women from Beatrice to Maria are so magnified, and a reason the religion of Jesus and the prophets becomes a faith politicized to the point of violence and corruption. The noted rationalism and romanticism of Europe are all of one psychological and philosophical piece.

Around the fourth century and the times of SS Augustine and Jerome, who between them rid Christianity of its chiliastic legacy (the prophetic dimension that believed Christ must return to Israel to rule in the Millennium – for Dante the Second Coming is reduced to the Last Judgement), it was reported that spiritual gifts (the charismata) of the early church were rare to non existent. One of the features of especially speaking in tongues was that the person did not usually know what it was they were saying to God (1 Cor 14:2). This was the original Christian via negativa, the not knowing which is nonetheless revelation and an uttering of the mysteries. This element of secrecy apart, it was assumed that individuals should relate to God more or less directly in a basically personal way and entering before the throne of grace boldly (Heb 4:16). And even if the glorified Christ or the enthroned God the Father were not exactly like humans, the long tradition of biblical references to their hands and eyes indicated an essential identity with the human. Christ is even described as the “icon”(image) of the invisible God (Col 1:15)

FROM CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE TO NEO-PLATONIC VISIONS

The fourth century revolution began a movement away from anything like this, and  it transposed practice to another level. It was no longer a case of saying unknown things to God but rather of not knowing or describing deity at all who must be described in negation (not good because beyond good etc) reached through the darkness and silence (the language of heaven itself according to the late medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart!) or who perhaps even was darkness or a superior Nothingness, attained by mental exercises rather than any more spontaneous means. These exercises needed to travel far, high and long as God became ever more remote, much helped by the influence of one of Dante’s own inspirations via Thomas Aquinas, (the latter high in the realm of the Sun) ,namely the Greek Pseudo-Dionysius.

Dante didn’t fall for the deception of the Donation of Constantine, but like many directly or indirectly he fell for Dionysius. Medievals decided this mendacious writer must be identical, as he tried to make out he was, with St Paul’s philosophical convert in Athens, not some fifth century subtle underminer of the entire Christian tradition via neo-platonic means.

Greek philosophy which was favourable to contemplation, almost despised the body as a prison of the soul and which held notions of a remote unmoved, mover deity, had never been entirely at home with the Hebrew legacy and its anthropomorphism dismissed in passing remarks of Dionysius. The Greek church had moreover been introduced to poisonous levels of anti-Semitism (Hitler would even approve it) through the Golden Mouth preacher St John Chrysostom. Pseudo-Dionysius is almost the summation of a Greek dissociation from a disdained Hebrew legacy. At the height of Pseudo-D’s system are angels, who, far from being co-workers with the faithful as per Rev 22:9, are exalted beings like Platonic ideas virtually barring the way to the hidden deity.

The anti Hebraic mindset of the Greeks was for all practical purposes sealed by the 8th Council of Constantinople in 869 which rid itself of the bible’s trichotomy or threefold anthropology of the self with its, Body, Soul and Spirit, substituting in line with Greek rationalism, a dichotomy of simply Body and Soul. Soul was now  what contained Spirit, a spirit as intellective spirit more or less reduced to Reason, the same Reason that underlines Dante’s entire rationalizing treatment of evil.

Originally, however, human spirit under the influence of Holy Spirit is what shapes and helps organize the imagination of soul. Soul (Gk psyche) is the reactive yin type function, the Hebrew/biblical nephesh or animal soul (the basic radiant aura or astral body of esoteric traditions). It is often what St Paul means when he refers to the “flesh” or lower nature which is more than just “body”  and which  is perceived as in conflict with the spirit (Gk pneuma, Heb  ruach) which should be allowed to dominate it. (One can picture the trichotomy as either body and animal soul nephesh together, with beyond it  spirit ruach  and then neshamah, the divine lamp,spark or higher soul, or you can portray the trichotomy as simply body, soul and spirit. Either way you have a possible reflection of the interactive Trinity that the simple soul/body dichotomy does not permit),

SPIRIT AND SOUL

If one reduces the whole drama of the self to simply a dualistic contrast and conflict of soul with body which in no way reflects the interactions of the Trinity, one is left with Logos or Word seen as purely masculine Reason tasked with dominating an unruly and despised purely feminine body. Whether in religious or cultural contexts, this distorts the masculine yang factor in man and God alike. What is masculine becomes a fixed, often cold, inflexible Reason, not a higher lyrical, adaptive, creative force. God is not a Creator whose creation can be also be poetry and sung over ( Zeph 3:7).

There is a Spirit of God, but there is also a Soul and Christ is that Soul; and because Soul is for humans the problem of what’s “fallen”, it is into the image of the perfected Christ to which the believer is supposed to be conformed (Rom 8:29). This does not and cannot happen in Dante where Christ is a dim figure, a cross, a griffen, “our pelican”, a wheel, because soul function  through the form and the work of woman (a Goethean  Ewig Weibliche  Eternal Feminine leading us ever on), has almost completely taken over obscuring the person. Dante in his ascent  instructed by Beatrice as a model of divine grace, is also teaching him via the beauty she embodies. This is problematic. Beauty is a reactive  yin force, its power dependent upon power before or beyond it.

Effectively substituting for the person of Christ, Beatrice even examines Dante in what is the equivalent of the believer’s presentation before the bema or judgement seat of Christ (Rom 8:10, 1 Cor 3:15). The entire image of Jesus  in the Commedia is suitably odd, empty or just vague. As said, it can be glimpsed (reflected in Beatrice’s eyes! ) from the head of the Christ-linked griffin in Purgatorio, to the forming and reforming cross of the heaven of Mars whose inhabitants are supposed to be close to Christ because, as or like crusaders, they literally took up the cross! And Dante at this level of heaven even identifies himself as a kind of Christ figure because of his exiled life! But ultimately, unlike other, especially female figures of the Paradiso, Christ is never quite clearly drawn, never quite characterized. He is an object of catechism, a sort of functionary to manage salvation, a precious symbol, but never quite either a recognizable person or inspiration. (Admittedly, over seven centuries later this treatment remains basically consistent with controversial statements  from  Pope Francis in July 2017 to the effect any claims to personal knowledge of or relation with Jesus can be dangerous and harmful; it is collectively through the mediation of the Church community and Mary that one may know of him).

On the social plain, the spiritual result of mis-vision in Dante’s style is that the very abuses he hated can still thrive because the outer forms (objectivised Reason) are respected as a sufficient perfection  and spiritual development (through controlled exercises rather than inspiration) can continue. And they can and will do so because they take individuals the way of soul rather than spirit. This is liable also to mean via the inspiration of women, for Dante from Beatrice to the Virgin. But this is not the way of will-shaping and correcting Spirit working on spirit as indicated by Jesus from the first in rejecting the salutations of the woman who praises the mother who bore him and the breasts that gave him suck (Luk 11:27), insisting only those that do the divine will are blessed.

DANTE THE MAN

A brilliant, erudite walking encyclopaedia of a man, Dante with his quirks is almost the epitome of the “mad” genius and poet, perhaps starting with the near crazy obsession with the indifferent and early deceased Beatrice dei Portinari. Eros and sexuality (the realm of especially “soul”) is one way to understanding the poet and not just of the Commedia but La Vita Nuova where he discovers Lady Philosophia.

Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds points to a connection in feeling and reference between the treatment of the sodomites Brunetto Latini in hell and Forsi in purgatory which she takes as a virtual confession of homosexual involvement (4). While we needn’t greatly doubt her – Florence like ancient Athens was a leading centre of openly expressed same sex feeling and art in especially the Renaissance, and Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini was gay. But I am just not sure why Reynolds speaks of “homosexuality” when obviously in Dante’s case she should be speaking of bisexuality.

One of the clues that this orientation was the case is the astonishing way, often noted, that Dante simply never mentions his wife (from an arranged marriage) and mother of his children,Gemma (to whom he is anyway believed to have been unfaithful). I am however less surprised than some by the silent avoidance. It may not be quite  PC to say it, but it should be recognized that bisexually inclined men are often seriously bad news for wives. Dante exquisitely joins two other major  bisexually inclined poets: Shakespeare who famously bequeathed the wife he hardly lived with his second best bed, and the bible’s King David who loved Jonathan but banished one of his wives, Michal, from his bed without reprieve lifelong. From the outset doubtless Beatrice represented at any rate one way for Dante of dealing with his creative and erotic complexity. Obviously she represents an anima figure who carries the weight of his massive imagination at the same time as her inaccessibility helps prevent his being too overwhelmed by the opposite sex and by eros generally.

If Dante has been more “homosexual” even within his bisexuality, he would likely have developed spiritually more along the lines of Michelangelo who reflected himself in the rather anti woman and even rather gay prophet Jeremiah (5). And he would have given a quite different emphasis to portrayal of the Virgin. Rather notoriously, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement  fresco portrays a very human Virgin figure, almost cowering away from a commanding Christ figure. Anyway, I  consider Dante’s sexuality could use more critical attention as it affects his work. So too could another theme, not liable to be emphasized and even downplayed in academic circles.

As he enters the region of the fixed stars, Dante makes it very clear he was born under and takes the character of Gemini, the celestial sign of words and communication but also division. In a way, this is a vital piece of information for all sorts of reasons (including to some extent the poet’s rather experimental, flitting eros). Europe is traditionally put under Gemini and certainly Christianity, born at Pentecost amid a speaking in tongues, belongs to the sign. Also born under Gemini was modern Italy which has taken Dante’s language for its own (reflecting the indelible role of Dante,incredibly the horoscope for Italy shows a conjunction of asteroids Dante and Virgilius in the hell section of the chart) (6),  and so too were Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds who have translated and popularized Dante in modern times. Even if you say that politics is of Capricorn, the fact is that democracy itself, the idea of divided church and state, a prominent Dantean theme, is of Gemini. Quite simply Dante is a Geminian person broaching a mass of Geminian themes  and thus for better or for worse his opinions can both reflect and make what the West is in itself – which has been a rather dark/light, changeable phenomenon in harmony with the sign’s “mutable” status.

FAITH AND VISION SOULED OUT

Dante never went to any heaven, or if he did it wasn’t like the one he described. The Paradiso is the equivalent of Bernini’s stunning  but questionable The Ecstasy of St Teresa in sculpture. Dante was a visionary poet who incomparably faked rather too much of his vision because ultimately it arose out of  soul function rather than descended on him through the spirit function and depended too much on virtual orgasm. That vision and mystical religion  could  be thus dependent to  some extent is inevitable and we needn’t automatically dismiss it for that – unless  it’s allowed to become  the whole story which, when soul takes over at the expense of the impulses of Spirit, it risks doing so that religion falls towards the sensationalist idolatry which is also materialism.

I am not saying that Dante was a false prophet (if he had a sin it was overweening vanity!) but that he was sometimes victim to those who were, and that he expressed their beliefs by default at a particular point in history to which he was somewhat hostage and has left others hostage too. Dante is, as Yeats had it, the imagination of Christendom, but sometimes unfortunately so. Because what the European imagination in its Christian mode has too often done, is, like a divided Gemini,  run in one or other of the opposed directions of  elaborate superstition and reductive humanism, pursuing a religion of numerous pious forms or alternatively political agendas because in both cases it is not grasping God aright at the centre.

Dante’s God of (remote and static) light and love joined to his dream of an elusive perfect ruler,  a Roman rather than the early Christians’ Christ of history, the Millennium and Jerusalem (Dante turns the Second Advent  within historical time into the Last Judgement beyond it), is also remote  from original and authentic Christianity. It is so adrift in a sea of intricate symbols and allegories (each episode organized to give four different possible meanings) it could be appropriated by almost anyone today from New Agers to one world, one religion Globalists. The turns of history and culture are so peculiar such might yet even be the case.

NOTES

1) In Raphael and Lucifer p 10 I write:

So may you, Inspiration, now draw near
To assist, reveal, declare because
More felt than seen by me or anyone
The forces are too bright and dark
Too fair and foul to be directly held….
It’s thus by symbol and through fantasy
You will convey the truths unrealized…..

2) Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency esp Chapter 6   https://goo.gl/Xi1jv8

3) The Hell Passage https://wp.me/p2v96G-7e

4) Barbara Reynolds, Dante  p.296

5) Jeremiah’s Loincloth   https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm

6). A Picture of Italian Life and Mind  https://wp.me/p2v96G-Nc

 

 

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THOUGHTS AT SIRMIO: A POEM

      

Grottoes of Catullus  at Sirmio ( modern Sirmione) and bust of the poet

I visited Sirmio in late May 2016 so would seem to have had plenty of time to  gather my thoughts poetic or other on the subject of Catullus! It will be evident I consider him a pivotal figure for poetry and art generally.

Despite great gulfs in time and culture dividing us  (but not temperament completely – he was a self-declared  Celt), Catullus (c.84-54 BC) is nonetheless a figure haunting me since adolescence for anything poetic, not least the idea I might  write some poetry myself one day. I regard this poet, along with the  Petrarch so important for his rediscovery, as giving me Italy and the West itself, which having  lived so much outside Europe in Asia and Australia, presents itself as a distinct, precious entity in my mind that I can’t take wholly for granted.  (I am not a globalist who like Macron doesn’t understand what “French” art could mean.  I believe in the value of difference, and even consider the West under threat rather as per Douglas Murray).

This is the last poem I will publish on this blog for reasons given along with the notes below.

THOUGHTS AT SIRMIO

You hoped for a century’s fame but fate,
Sometimes kind and surprising and often
Ironic, gave more. It granted millennia
And your birthplace, Verona, city of lovers,
By the rarest of fortunes and under
One barrel only, preserved written word
Of your pleasures and sorrows and pain
Long endured in the service of Venus’
Adulterous muse. Yet It was through
And beyond her before a too early
Ending, you arrived at more than just
Wisdom – new freedom of being as
Poet and person – and, though childless,
Bequeathed so much that’s Europa’s alone.

11

Sirmio, first home to wake inspiration….
See there those absolutes of blue and blue
A lake and sky, joined in transcendent
Reverie that, island-like, an isthmus meets.                 1
They’ve breathed together as the centuries pass
And still do now an era changes sign
Imposing images and words that guide
The slow and mighty turns of history’s round…..         2
A change that daunts, by many also mourned,
Though we must hope that what serves truth
Remains with western consciousness of self
And will to stand a single voice alone
“Caesar I am not keen to please you”                         3

111

No homage to person or place were better
Than that Sirmio’s pilgrims laid praise for
Homer aside, disapproved the violent
Thrills that were play for the offspring of Zeus,
Gods by Plato condemned yet who in
Centuries after still taught ambition
To monarchs looked down on from high
Palace ceilings. Likewise dismiss all Pindaric
Praise for the human as athlete, the riders
And wrestlers, victors in base competition
Securing each loser shame and rejection
Their limbs often needlessly injured
Even sight itself dimmed before time.
Nostalgia for old Hellas’ ways is misplaced.
Recall but the weight of their darkness, how
Olympian favours extended through
Earthly life only, never challenging Hades
And death, no matter how unjust and lamented.
The bard’s fickle gods loved especially heroes,
Steered the likes of Odysseus homewards
Ignoring the others, companions and crew.

1V

Flowing from Helicon’s streams, or tuned
To deceptive notes of a lyre
The muse was not heard in her fullness.
Amid stock, high sounding phrases of epic,
Their images glinting like sun on too
Weighty armour, the branches and fruit of
Poesia’s tree, natural shelter and fare
For insight and vision could scarce put down root.
Love’s lure and excitement, soul’s motions
Not closely recorded before you,
The struggle to personal knowledge and mythos
With willing refusal of popular value,
Such needed to flourish elsewhere serenely.
It would thrive amid requisite leisure
And dawning awareness that words, syntax
And passion of themselves could make music
And from rhythms first practiced on tablets
Of wax towards a finished perfection
On polished papyrus, their destination
Home villa, the forum or library box.

V

By deep blue and glassy Barcarus                      4
Was almost an Eden for new language
And dreaming, for life without competition
Directed to pleasure, above all to
The friendship that was lifelong your passion.
The city by contrast gave fame though love failed,
And betrayed. The most adored woman proved
Faithless, the idolized youth vented scorn.
But beyond disappointment, heart and mind
Much divided, you divined woman’s being,
Not just as beloved, held meaning,
Deserved new, wider description. From poets
Not least since, like Ariadne abandoned
On Naxos, soul itself was a woman,
And to know it served justice and truth.

V!

Through you as lover and dreamer and
Satirist sometimes, the incoming era
And mind of Europa was forming,
Piecing together a varied mosaic
Composed of ever more self-aware persons.
Though by nature divided and doubting
And often protesting, Europa’s descendants,
(Vaunting uniqueness and aided by arts.
Where Eros and love would  be often supreme),
Could never quite live in social denial
Of what was  a woman and soul’s vital place.

V11

You did not wish but imagined endless
Slumber in Hades. Did you never consider
Your words, like sunlight through branches,
Might pierce the veil of any dark’s dreaming
Or force an occasion to answer the questions
Of those who  heard you, feeling  addressed
And as though independent of time?
If your spirit had listened and answered
What might then questioners say in departure
Or homage? Surely not “Hail and Farewell”                        5
But rather “Hail now, tomorrow and always”.

NOTES

1  The ruins of  the supposed villa home of Catullus stand  at the end of an isthmus that juts into the lake appearing to be almost an island

2 The turning of the ages is assumed. Catullus lived near to the onset of the Piscean era with its distinctive themes which are now giving way to those of Aquarius

3  Catullus XC111

4 Barcarus – ancient name of  Lake Garda

5 Famously Catullus writes Ave atque Vale  (Hail and Farewell)  to his deceased brother.  Here  I am suggesting Ave atque Ave is appropriate for the poet but whether in Latin or English the poem cannot sustain precisely that

The above is my last poetic entry to this blog There is no advantage to putting such material out only to be told, as I have been in UK and Ireland,  this means that legally it’s published which these days no broadcaster or publisher seems to want or even allow. The whole thing is, and for me always was, a Catch 22 situation. Years ago and after I had a poetic drama broadcast with the ABC, they couldn’t broadcast other examples of my work (such as in the belatedly indie published Puer Poems) that hadn’t been published first. Which they were even prepared to recommend but to no effect with some truly insulting Australian publishers. In more recent times the likes of the RTE in Ireland couldn’t broadcast my work for their author-showcasing Sunday Miscellany because it was out on the Net. They said I could offer them new poetry – the poem 1793 :Before the Guillotine (September 2017 of this blog) is that, but I couldn’t obtain an acknowledgment for sending it. It is a waste of time, truly a waste of time, to produce almost anything for the minds that deal in broadcasting, and publishing, above all poetry which these days must conform to certain post modern standards including that they contain nothing metaphysical or religious, another barrier. Truly Catullan satire would be needed to address the abuse and the mean, small minded nonsense that the various literary establishments can represent. My article Prince Charles and the Poets https://wp.me/p2v96G-ZR gives a little idea of some of my long standing problems which I don’t expect to be resolved in my lifetime and which are so severe it might take half a lifetime just to describe them anyway!

 

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2018 in creativity, Poetry

 

BEYOND EASTER DAWNING: A POEM

There is little enough celebration of Easter or any probing of its meaning today in specifically verse..In turn Australia, never the most poetic of nations, has become so  secular (or perhaps multicultural and fearful to offend those like Muslims who deny both the death and resurrection of Christ  occurred), that this year’s Good Friday TV contained not a single programme related  to the day. The following poem thus fills a poetic gap of sorts and is even a small act of  poetic justice in the face of blind secularism/multiculturalism.

Poems of mine can be found throughout this blog, but I have not written any poetry for a while – the last entry was for last September. This latest offering, composed very quickly by my usual standards, came to me (or at least the idea for it did) unexpectedly, while driving my car on the Tuesday of this Easter week. Because it was so quickly written and carries various implications, I may yet edit  the piece. It would nonetheless seem foolish to hold it back at this Easter season simply because I did not consider it as perfect as I could wish. But then, beyond poetry, I don’t think too much of art generally as regards the Resurrection theme (see comment below).

BEYOND EASTER DAWNING

A trembling of the earth alone gave sound
When Life revived. The pre–dawn air was still,
The sky dark amost as the Hades just traversed
And conquered too.

Though present and aware, no seeing angels sang
The moment that gave second birth to earth and soul
And most of all to bodily form, not owning which
Even lasting soul could live as homeless as the damned.

After the earth had moved and shouting soldiers,
Terrified, had fled their watch
The brooding silence had returned and
Lain across the hills of Zion’s troubled land
As though in wait for who at dawn
Might understand and celebrate
The range and heights of mystery.

Beneath the high serene of April sky
Within the second Eden of a garden’s place
What Nature’s Lord, the Morning Star, achieved
A passionate woman was the first to know.
And then the youthful bosom friend, the friend
Of soul. Both these while others talked in fear
Were able to believe if little more than
Joyful fact. Full forty days were needed to absorb
The larger truths and fifty till the Spirit sealed
With fire and tongues the new and growing
Powers now opened to belief on earth.

Though once revealed, the force of resurrection
Grows – the reason earth still travails to its liberty (1)
And still no heavenly choirs have sung the theme
Of life reborn and wholly changed.
Instead, towards the age’s end
And even as belief declines  (2)
They wait, like us, who now and here
See more a light of noon than dawn
A promise of the trumpet’s blast
That raises even those in dust. And thus
On Easter’s morn we feel us sealed
And called beyond as not before.

NOTES

1)  Rom 8:22 …..the whole creation groans and travails

2)  Luk 18::8  ….When he returns will the Son of Man find faith upon earth?

Until I started searching for pictures to accompany this poem, I had not quite taken in how curiously limiting and defective resurrection themed art is. You have little choice apart from archaic, misshapen mostly medieval images  and modern, kitschy, mainly American, emotion based ones, almost none of which suggest the mystery of spiritual, physical and natural power involved. Between ancient and modern Claude Lorrain captures something of the first Sunday mood in its dreamier mystical, peace/shalom aspect, but, though the artist can’t be blamed for it, there is no notable connection to historical detail and setting. Michelangelo’s Renaissance Risen Christ sculpture presents its own problems as discussed by Frank Salmon  ( https://goo.gl/7j36HP )  who points out how vastly more crucifixion than resurrection has engaged art and artists.  I feel faced with one big  artistic distortion, and for the first time have some sympathy for the aniconic position where religion is concerned. Better no image at all if the image can only be inadequate. However, all that is a subject in itself..

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2018 in Mysteries, Poetry, religion

 

1793: THOUGHTS BEFORE THE GUILLOTINE, A POEM

[Of all the poems issued on this blog and elsewhere I have the least understanding of its original impulse.. It has something to do with impressions of places and people experienced while living in France years ago. In that sense it was always around; but I finally put things together because an overseas radio programme which invites poetry but accepts nothing already published, even on the Net, wanted complete novelty. So I made an effort to oblige. But from long experience I know that, sadly ,media can’t be trusted to be reliable or helpful. After hearing nothing from the given address I was improbably told nothing had been received; however I could apply again to a certain person but it might take up to six months for a decision. Which seems about right as I re-applied and have never heard again. Not so much as a line of acknowledgment. So I shall “publish” here o the net which disqualifies me from being broadcast. The literary scene or those who manage it remain as tiresome and tortoise slow as they ever were across the centuries. …..Perhaps.I should write a poem in the style of Juvenal warning against the folly of writing poetry for anyone or anything today?!].

1793: THOUGHTS BEFORE THE GUILLOTINE

Crisp as fresh bread day dawned
The air was still as marble steps, the sky
Serene as female faces calmed –
Such mild and quiet harbingers of good you’d say.

But now past noon there’s just this noise
The crowds, the faces I refuse to see,
The narrow streets, the high and dusty
Tenements, their shadows pressing down
Towards our destination in a wider space
Beneath a harsher light where all is seen.
Till then across worn cobbles
On and on wheels grate and tumbrils lurch
Behind slow beasts born strangers to
The grace and speed of race and hunt.

Shut quickly as a fan our hunting parties
Like the dance were gone with all
Our private pleasures and affairs.
I’m all that I have been and done
This self which half evaporates amid
What’s so immediate, so material.

Yet what’s mundane may still conceal
Some mystery a shade sublime
When like a ritual it repeats. How strange
The cock crows all days good and ill,
And sun shines down on war and peace!
Small doubt it’s Nature is supreme
Although it posts no messages of hope
Nor tells of life beyond our end.
But who’s to say, who even could,
What is our purpose and the Truth?
Philosophies of God or gods or none
Are quests in vain unless perhaps
The atoms re-engage in much the way
Lucretius thought they formed at first.

Yes, Nature is the Absolute and beneath
Its sway there’s always inequality and rank
Such as with pride I rightly show
And such as some will always own.
There’s continuity of sorts in that
As in the dialogue of selves. The mind runs on
To insist “I am”, the reason why perhaps
Mad legend tells how on the stream
A poet’s severed head still spoke and sang.
For when it seems there is no more to say
There always is; there’s always will.

Show well I must, defy all Hades that is dark…
Towards the fated square wheels grate
And tumbrils lurch. Breathe deep, dream
Summer skies, be calm. Release.

Readers can find other poems of mine on this site and in the books  Puer Poems, New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas and Raphael and Lucifer and other Visionary Poems all available from Amazon and the Book Depository. Still other poems if more occasional can be found at the less used, McCleary’s Additions, blog     https://mcclearysadditions.wordpress.com/
This blog currently contains some different perspectives on Australia’s marriage equality debate

 

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2017 in Poetry

 

PRINCE CHARLES AND THE POETS: A CONUNDRUM

 A CONUNDRUM

charlespoet

Thinking outside the box, being or just seeming eccentric has its uses. It has had the latter In the case of Britain’s Prince Charles in everything from useful experiments in architecture and the environment to the training of unemployed youth. When it comes to literature and despite Charles being a patron of the arts (and known for a highly traditional Shakespeare fan), the picture is more complex, peculiarly so and with what looks like subjectivity to the point of self-contradiction.It does so not least in relation to poetry as the expression of beliefs, an area in which Charles once famously declared he wishes one day to be “defender of faith” rather than “a defender of the faith”.

Yet if Charles’ major predilections when it comes to poets and poetry was anything to go by, it might be more accurate to describe him as defender of unfaith. His personal relations with especially two notable poets presents nothing short of a conundrum, though I have begun to see the conundrum entails a form of understanding that makes his position almost inevitable.

As described later, I have had dealings with at any rate one of the two poets considered here. They were two very different individuals who were rivals for the position of poet laureate – Ted Hughes (1930-1998) narrowly beat Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) to the position in 1984. Hughes, easily Britain’s most controversial poet since Lord Byron, despite all the scandals became almost family to the royals. A great natural storyteller he often read bed time stories to Princes William and Harry and since his death in 1998 Charles has erected a shrine (with stained glass!) to the poet at his Highgrove home and given permission to a hidden memorial on crown land in Dartmoor. Charles used to fish in the wilds and dine at home with the poet and his grandmother was, the poet alleged, almost flirtatious with him.

THE WILDEST POET SINCE BYRON 

by Rollie McKenna, bromide print, 1959

Women tended to find Hughes irresistible and were the problem of his life starting with the brilliant but difficult poet Sylvia Plath whom to this day many feminists choose to regard as virtual murder victim because Hughes’ infidelity drove her to suicide. The claim gained weight because death seemed to cling to Hughes like a leech. Assia Wevill, the married woman for whom Hughes left his wife, duplicated the gas oven suicide taking her daughter by Hughes along with her; another lover, Susan Alliston, died young of cancer, and Hughes’ son by Plath suicided in a fit of depression  – in this some saw genetics, some saw a curse, some said Hughes had been a domestic tyrant in a way to affect his son’s mind.

Bad though his record was, I feel it is possible to overdo the scandal of Hughes with women and similarly his reputation as virtual black magician due to his (rather Jungian) interest in the occult, alchemy, Cabbala, astrology, and shamanism – he deemed poetry a form of magic. If Hughes’s sexuality could, like his poetry, be volcanic and even sadistic, it’s a fact that when he first kissed Plath (who wanted to be a Cathy to this Yorkshireman’s Heathcliff) she drew blood from him like a vampire. But the faithless Hughes did love and respect Plath deeply (his last major work Birthday Letters is testimony enough to that) and arguably lifelong there would have been fewer flings and infidelities if the romantic pair had reconciled as intended and Plath survived. As it was, an irresistible man left rudderless and confused by his fate, followed the line of least resistance. Hughes may never have been the ogre many believed, but in one less obvious sense he was one.

As modern and especially British poets go, Hughes can be considered spiritual but not healthily so. Indeed, especially if poetry has anything like the magical function the poet assumed, then Hughes has purveyed little short of spiritual pollution itself. The early poems which brought fame in such collections as The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal represent his Tarka the Otter or Kiplingesque line in verse. They project unusually forceful feeling onto the life of fauna and are healthy enough. After Plath’s suicide a new more shamanistic, less coherent, incomplete but highly dramatic and mythic form of verse takes over in the collections Crow and Cave Birds and this colours Hughes’ work across the next two decades.

THE TED HUGHES MASTERPIECE

The genesis of the cryptic Crow – Hughes’ masterpiece in his estimation  and that of at least some critics – arose from more than one impulse, but coming to terms with the death of Plath definitely had something to do with it.It’s a protest against common existence and notions of fate and God, to which it supplies alternative answers of a sort, even if because for Hughes poetry is “magic”, an act, resolution is like a shamanic dismemberment and reconstitution of self.  If the answers are personal they are perhaps perhaps indirectly also for England whose national psychology fascinated Hughes (author of the difficult but important Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Wisdom which  addresses this). And Britain for Hughes was symbolized less by its heraldic lion than the enterprising crow, the Celtic god Bran’s totem.

In the beginning was Scream

Who begat Blood…..
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never, Never, Never

Who begat Crow…..

hughescrow

It is hard to summarize Crow or even adequately excerpt from it; one can at best supply something of its flavour, relentlessly negative, profane, grotesque with its essential protest against creation.

“A final try’ said God. Now LOVE’
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched….
….And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened

The two struggled together on the grass
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept….”

Adam and Eve along with God regularly diverge from all canonical portrayals.

God ran and told Adam
Who in a drunken rage tried to hang himself in the orchard

The Serpent tried to explain, crying “Stop”….
And Eve started screeching: “Rape, Rape!”
And stamping on his head”

After creation God had been called upon to take it back and he suffers a nightmare which tells him to do better. Crow, a trickster figure, emerges to help correct things in the course of which he invents the chaos of sexuality and goes in quest of his female half.

At this level of story some might take Hughes’ picture to be almost humorous in a Monty Pythonesque fashion. But there’s enough of it and it becomes clear the inversions and negations of the canonical are a launch pad for the development of statements that cannot be taken as other than abusive and profane as Crow becomes some kind of image or shadow imitation of a Christ figure as in The Risen

When he soars his shape
Is a cross, eaten by light
On the Creator’s face…..

…In the wind-fondled crucible of his splendour
The dirt becomes God

And though the particular words aren’t within Crow itself but Cave Birds, one could guess that essentially the poet’s beliefs and attitudes as in A God, amounted to the following insulting grotesquery directed upon crucifixion and notions of salvation.

Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat…
He was helpless as a lamb
Which cannot be born
Whose head hangs down under its mother’s anus….

His patience had meaning only for him
Like the sanguine upside-down grin
Of a hanging half-pig…

He could not understand what had happened
Or what he had become

Though the verse is complicated, I doubt that the attitude that gives rise to them is. It may be almost too easy to make diagnosis of Hughes’ spiritual condition. Around the time of Plath’s funeral, Hughes had said he did not seek to be forgiven and if there was an eternity he would be damned (1). Did Hughes mean he would suffer his own guilt forever in refusal of all grace and redemption, or, since refusal of forgiveness can entail refusal of repentance, at some level there was nothing to repent of anyway? Either way the attitude seems singularly harsh and negative and it duly gives rise to negative effects. Almost everyone would agree there was something for Hughes to be sorry for. An attitude of ongoing self-criticism that tries to learn from failure, is almost fundamental to the Christianity that married and buried Hughes but did little else for him. Whether psychologically or spiritually, the guilt or unrepentance envisaged could automatically cut the individual off from God leaving them in precisely the death-dominated nay saying dark in which Crow operates.

CONSEQUENCES OF A SINGLE CHOICE

If Hughes had reflected more upon even just the symbolism of his beloved occult sources, he might have learned something. The images of alchemy include the mutilation of the screaming lion’s paws, an image of the lion (Hughes was astrologically a Leo) needing to be cured of his defiant pride if the process is to continue. Arguably Hughes represents only the latest among notable Leos engaged upon some theatrical collision course with deity. One thinks of Jack Miles God: A Biography, which aims to cut God down to size. Among poets there is Robert Graves who invented the White Goddess and more famously Shelley who waged a long war against a half believed in deity. Some critics have seen revolt against God in the both the fiction (Pierre) and poetry (Clarel) of Hermann Melville. Leo philosopher, Feuerbach, reduces God to nothing but a reflection of the human mind. Jung’s The Answer to Job does much the same. Leo simply does not readily admit to faults minor or major, is not humble…..like the devil one might say – in my always correct data for Christ, Lucifer (the asteroid) appears in the sign of Leo. (2).

So much of Hughes poetry is insalubrious and gratuitously violent (persons fainting outright at readings was not uncommon), one is inclined to think Prince Charles didn’t absorb too strongly what was written or said beyond the earliest offerings. Or perhaps core messages were passed over as being akin to merely Monty Python entertainments to which, like the Goon show before it, Charles was partial. (Eric Idle’s popular but distinctly godless song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from the Python team’s The Life of Brian, was performed for Charles’ sixtieth birthday).

KATHLEEN RAINE, UNEXPECTED ROYAL GURU

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Though the intrepid Kathleen Raine who died at ninety five after being hit by a car didn’t qualify for a Highgrove shrine, a personally commissioned  bust of her stands in Charles home among others representing a special influence. Some have called the pair soul mates. Exceptionally for royal custom, Charles attended the poet’s anachronistic funeral in Westminster Cathedral (anachronistic because Raine considered her brief conversion to Catholicism a mistake out of harmony with her beliefs and life work), and with the Queen’s permission he arranged a memorial service at the St James’ palace chapel. At that service it was mentioned how Raine regarded her connection with Charles as a fated part of her life mission. So this was a poet who had become another of those almost but not quite family figures. Prince and poet engaged a lively correspondence and Charles used to call in at the writer’s Chelsea home in Paultons Square for tea and cakes and pep talks where he was distinctly encouraged to pursue paths less travelled, was assured his position was the hardest and loneliest in the world but that he must  not surrender one inch “to the riff raff”.

In contrast to the relation with Hughes, Charles had to have been very certain about what Kathleen Raine represented as chief co-founding editor of the magazine Temenos (founded 1984). It began as a review “devoted to the arts of the Imagination” with the understanding that most meaningful  expressions of art are related to the sacred). Suitably impressed, Charles became its patron and later gave room space and lecture time in his new Academy of Architecture to those engaged on Raine’s project. He was so impressed by it the magazine became the Temenos Academy Review, effectively the review of a school Charles sponsored that was devoted to promotion of the Platonic Good, True and Beautiful across cultures. Charles himself contributed an article, A Sense of the Sacred – Building Bridges between Islam and the West. The magazine had been originally inspired by the work of Henry Corbin in France, an Islamic scholar who taught the fundamental unity of the Abrahamic faiths, though I think that emphasis minimally reflected any beliefs or interests of Raine who was drawn more to the faiths of Asia.

IN PARENTHESIS: BELIEFS OF PRINCE CHARLES

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Charles’ Temenos contribution is the sort of thing which especially early in the century fostered rumours about a private conversion to or profound affinity for Islam, a point on which I shall briefly digress though I can’t possibly know truth in this matter. Undeniably there were visits to Muslim shrines, a donning of Muslim garb, controversial words uttered about the possible integration of Sharia Law to Britain and at least one Sheik (Mohammed Naim al Haqqani, Mufti of Turkish Cyprus and a Sufi Grand Mufti) would affirm that Charles was unofficially Sufi, a Muslim in his heart as Allah accepted (3). It could however be that HRH’s enthusiasm (he has spoken of “the perfection and beauty of original Islam”) was the expression of an earlier era when few knew the finer or any details of Sharia, when Islamism had not emerged and appreciation of world faiths had a stronger aesthetic emphasis (If Charles is enamoured of Islamic art he fancies Greek icons too in harmony with Raine’s connection of the aesthetic with the sacred).

It belongs with Charles’ “out of the box” treatment of themes that recently he has bemoaned the relative silence of media in the face of the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians. This is not like a convert’s talk. What is known and certain is that Charles has been strongly influenced by the universalist religious ideas of Swiss writer Frithjof Schuon, who regarded at any rate mystical Islam as a potential unifying force in the world and converted to Sufism, though also being associated with Amerindian tribal religion and other systems in his quest for primordial faith and perennial wisdom.. Mark Sedgwick in Against the Modern World probably gives the best description of Charles’ belief and I cite this in note. (4)

RAINE: LINKING THE AESTHETIC AND THE SACRED

As said, Raine founded Temenos to promote precisely   “imagination” and a sense of the sacred. This was to be furthered amid modern deserts of materialism and ultra-rationalism. She considered all true poetry a form of Platonism and genuine poets Platonists at heart, though perhaps like Hughes she believed verse could be “magic” too. At one time and in imitation of Yeats, Golden Dawn ceremonies got performed in her home. At least a couple of poems seem to indicate she saw or was visited by spirits (The Elementals, In Paralda’s Kingdom).

A major, ground breaking  authority on William Blake, and a noted admirer of Yeats, (both figures seen as representing “imagination”), Raine was a distinguished critic and significant advocate of neo-romanticism in especially poetry. She was herself by general consent an accomplished poet if unevenly so as she half admits in her final Collected Poems. This  excised some pieces, the sort of soppy, sentimental, rather confused personal stuff you feel shouldn’t be there – KR’s love life had always been troubled and in the case of gay author Gavin Maxwell, guilt-ridden as she had (some said successfully) cursed him in a fit of rage when he couldn’t reciprocate her desires.

When not about love or urban and rural scenes, the more mystical or philosophical of Raine’s verse tends to oscillate between awareness of being isolated as perhaps a fragment of a larger whole and awareness of somehow being or warmly included in that whole.

Thus:

I am a wave
That will never reach the shore

I am an empty shell
Cast up upon the sand   (The Unloved)

……It is enough now I am old
That everywhere above, beneath
About, within me is the one
Presence…     (In my Seventieth Year)

I am old and alone but boundless
All is everywhere
Once is forever (A Love remembered)

This emphasis early on and continuously supplied KR a kind of spontaneous affinity for Hindu identity mysticism, though she did not realize this till late and the last two decades of her long life. Before that and as the daughter of a rather repressive Methodist preacher, she had been in flight from Christianity, unclear even what the word “God” meant. Earth’s great cry of joy and woe that KR hears and then a consubstantiality with the earth she feels is perhaps…..

….What men called God
Before the word lost meaning. This
That needs no doctrine to make plain,
No cult to offer or withhold
A union more intimate
Than breath of life…….  

Sometimes rejection of or by God (however described), strikes a strange note.

God in me beats my head upon a stone   (Storm)

Stranger still are statements as from Judas Tree to the effect that if it was remarkable Judas was a betrayer, it was almost more remarkable the other disciples, “So stupidly, so tentatively faithful” were stayers. The poet realizes she has more often been a betrayer (of Christ?) than Judas, but sorrowed less for it and isn’t like Judas hanging on a tree.

While Raine could hardly claim to have betrayed anyone to death, it seems plain enough that between her critical and poetic work for much of her life she was a nay saying neo-pagan. It was the combination of a belated discovery of India and then the discovery of herself by Charles, that gave Raine more purpose in life and something approaching specific direction of faith. It then took the form of hymns to Shiva (Prayer to the Lord Shiva, Nataraja, Millennial Hymn to the Lord Shiva) and even addresses to the sun

Sun, great giver of all that is……
How address you greatest of givers,
God, angel, these words served once, but no longer…
But no myth, as before our eyes you are or seem…
Am I in you or you in me….?                          (To the Sun)

In some sense and in a poem dedicated to Charles, she could see how by tradition kings were sun identified. (Legendary Kings).

The Millennial Hymn to Shiva, asks who else can we pray to with the days of praising the Creator over and so much of the world being destroyed, than the Lord of destruction, a destruction that purifies. In the violence of Shiva, Raine seems to find some resolution of the passive and aggressive elements of her divided self.

MEETING KATHLEEN RAINE

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                         Kathleen Raine                                               McCleary in 1987

Back in 1987 I knew Ms Raine chiefly for her well informed, insightful critical work, but I knew she had founded Temenos and was generally a promoter of the neo-romantic. I was hopeful she might perceive myself as a neo-romantic, more especially in poetry where I had produced material working towards a loosely tantric, East-West aesthetic. Earlier in the decade I had enjoyed an international critical success (in prose) on East-West cultural and religious issues as a result of living many years in Asia, but poetry was a sudden new arrival in my life. Even today I remain surprised at just how proficient some of the work like the Anuradhapura I offered to Raine, actually was given that it came without any real precedent. The poems now in Puer Poems (the title influenced by Jung’s theory of the Puer archetype I somewhat celebrate) (5), had nonetheless hit a brick wall. There wasn’t a magazine or publisher would give it the time of day for almost any reason. It’s wasn’t the writing itself was bad, it would have been hard to maintain precisely that. It was always something else. You must go through magazines first, magazines objected the poems were too long or exotic. It was quite clear anything neo-romantic,  East-West or “occult” (one of the poems evoked theatre in terms of kabbalistic concepts) was simply not to be considered. You need to be Yeats or Ted Hughes before you can be tolerated for such interests.

Since I lived in Chelsea when I wasn’t overseas, I decided to wander down the Embankment and call at Paultons Square and ask for a poem or excerpts of some to be included in Ms Raine’s esteemed magazine so that I might have the recommendation of it to wave at recalcitrant publishers. As I thought it might appeal to her, I was even bold enough to present myself as having some affinities for the world of Yeats. This was not as foolish or presumptuous as it might sound. Even a department head for my first degree on meeting me years later, remarked he wasn’t surprised at my development as he had always registered me as a type of young Yeats and within a year or two of meeting Ms Raine, a rara avis, a poetic drama based on a Celtic mythic theme, had been accepted by the ABC in Australia. Contemporary Irish verse which has largely followed the British modernism Raine abominated,  contains little or no romantic, mythic or religious content. I can state unequivocally I am closer to Yeats than any of Irish nationality writing today. (I could also claim to have been continuously discriminated against because of it too!).

So…. theoretically there was no special reason for Ms Raine to refuse me the favour of a page or two of print in a sizeable review. I knew I ticked most of the boxes or seemed to.

Having described Ms Raine and meeting her in my memoir, I won’t say much more than this. When she got round to checking me out more particularly CV wise, and I mentioned that my internationally well-reviewed The Expansion of God had been published in Britain by SCM (a respected publisher of theology and philosophy), she almost choked with horror gasping “Oh, so you’re a Kistian!”. And while I sat (quite likely where Charles would sit in full view of her dancing Shiva bronze), she launched into a lecture, almost a tirade, about the superiority of India over the West, the nonsense of Europeans trying to bring any religious wisdom to it, etc etc.

Raine’s biography states that some considered her an autocrat. Sensing as much myself, I felt virtually certain in light of her shock that I would not be accepted whatever I said or did and that I would be sentenced without trial. Unsurprisingly, the details of the later refusal proved not just mean in the context of my thankless task of being published for the kind of material Raine should support, but suitably absurd. How could someone admitting I had something of Wordsworth, then object I exceeded his expression of the egotistical sublime by admitting the purely private to my verse. Here was an objection (surely a Jungian projection!) from someone herself embarrassingly personal in her own verse to the point of complaining (since Raine was once celebrated for beauty) of her thin hair and old breasts and whose revelations include how she managed her cat, “Is Pussy coming to bed?”  (I see my little Cat). My own work would seem downright impersonal by comparison. And any religious prejudice was ironic too since, however Christian I might be personally or in the published book I’d mentioned to her, the reality was that the material that would constitute Puer Poems unlike more recent work such as Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems, (6) had nothing Christian to it at all. Conservative Christians might even raise objections to the content, and given the way I’d employed religious and mythic imagery I didn’t believe in, I could almost have been taken for a Buddhist or Yeatsian theosophist.

POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS OF POETRY

Poetry can be and do many things. At its higher reaches it can function to change perspectives, further unity through new thought syntheses, grant vision to people. Accordingly it can be all of Ted Hughes “magic” and national definitions and likewise Kathleen Raine’s “transcendence” and evocation of the Beautiful. However, even Raine’s devotion to the Platonic Beautiful cannot avoid the Good and True.

The greatest originality can never entirely circumvent basic psychological and spiritual principles. If, like Hughes, one refuses anything like “repentance”, one will be left raging in the dark, and if like Raine one dismisses all issues of truth-in-belief in favour of the claims of tradition, love, inclusion or whatever, one will merely finish in self-contradiction…. not to say the discrimination that officially one’s position may claim to be opposed to.

Raine may establish Temenos to unite cultures, beliefs and creativity across the board, but practically she would be strongly opposed to and exclusive of all Christianity (outside possibly the Meister Eckhart ultra-mystical “heretical” kind) and caught in the branches of her own Judas Tree. The position exemplifies the biblical statement “Whoever is not for me is against me and whoever does not gather with me, scatters” (Luk 11:23).

THE UNIVERSALIST PIPE DREAM

Prince Charles has never been notably fortunate in his gurus – the “Jungian” adviser the late, Laurens van der Post (another Chelsea resident and a friend of Raine) has been shown to be such a lying fraud and some claimed a pedophile, he is today best forgotten and unmentioned – but I suggest that where poetic gurus are concerned, the complication repeats itself if more mildly. More mildly, but not with less potential significance for the Prince’s credo, and perhaps increasingly that of many who incline to the same would-be universalist views.

One sets out to include everyone, to defend “faith”, to love the world over its component national or whatever parts, but one finishes with discrimination in fact. At its worst, it is precisely tolerance, acceptance and inclusion of all people, races and faiths that in Britain has allowed the Trojan horse scandal in education and the sexual exploitation of minors through police fears of “racist” charges if they point to crimes and values protected within specific cultural and religious groups. In this way the moral ideal breeds the immoral one and the religious ideal fosters spiritual pollution.

Arguably the truest., most appropriate poetry for our times would be prophetic satire, nothing more, nothing less. I could envisage a sort of update of the bible’s Prov 7 with this time a lost, aimless Europa and her unruly offspring wandering “in the twilight, in the evening, in the time of night and darkness”. But I sense it is already too late to tackle the momentous subject of rapid western decline in all its daunting complexity. Albeit from a different perspective, I share some of the pessimism of Raine’s Millennial Hymn to Shiva. in which already there is something less to warn against or correct than to resign to and mourn. It is has become apparent to me that writing well and relevantly today only raises insecurities and resentments in those who determine the face of literature. I mentioned last article the case of a leading Australian poet who while giving me the back-handed praise rather like Raine’s Wordsworth compliment that I had the musicality of Virgil (not a bad hit – tell the Dartmoor shades of classics translator and astrologer  Ted Hughes that asteroid Virgil conjuncted my sun at birth!), the fact I had included such “hopelessly archaic words” as “conduct” and “bestow” meant I could not be published with Penguins.

The rapidly increasing decline of the West is due not just to its materialism and PCness but among other things its artistic decadence, pundits like Raine invoking light but too often fostering darkness. As said, this decline is a theme already almost too large, too late for any one person or artist to tackle and after much striving to be allowed any kind of voice, finally I refuse to attempt such tasks, though my Beyond Dover Beach is a gesture in the direction (7). As the Taoists have it, “to retire is best”. In my own case I am satisfied that retiral and silence are the appropriate response. “Where there is no vision the people perish”. But if help is not wanted, often it is not right to insist upon giving it either; casting pearls never helped anyone or anything.

As to Prince Charles and because he does enjoy influence, one can only hope he is more fortunate in future with his gurus of art, avoiding the contradictions into which they could lead him and others.

NOTES

1) Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, p.219
2) Testament of the Magi: Mysteries of the Birth and Life of Christ, goo.gl/I28aCm
3 ) Alleged Sufi conversion https://goo.gl/MF2qYF and  for continuous updates over the years on Charles’ statements and gestures vis-à-vis Islam see https://goo.gl/YnNndW
4) “…..Charles’ own position might be described as anti-modernist Jungian and Emersonian universalism. At the opening of his Institute of Architecture he defined “spirit” as that overwhelming experience of awareness of a oneness with the Natural World, and beyond that with the creative force we call God which lies at the central point of all….It is both ‘pagan’ and Christian and in this sense is surely the fundamental expression of what we call religion”. In the same speech Prince Charles spoke against “scientific rationalism:” as “destroying the traditional foundations on which so many of our human values had been based for thousands of years” Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History. Mark Sedgwick. Oxford University Press 2004. n. 45 p 328.
5) Puer Poems  (2011) goo.gl/ymnMmr
6) Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems (2016)  goo.gl/Xqd5BF
7) Beyond Dover Beach: A Poem of our Times http://wp.me/p2v96G-gY

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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RAPHAEL and LUCIFER: Religion, Vision and Verse

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Lucifer, the Prince of Air, descends to the lower hells to teach his minions how to launch a great deceit upon a sophisticated but unsuspecting humanity. Elsewhere the foreseeing Archangel Raphael explains and reveals what this will be, but will his warnings be heeded?

RAPHAEL AND LUCIFER and OTHER VISIONARY POEMS is unusual as poetry today and definitely different in its ideas.

VIDEO  recording from WildSound of Part  One of the four part  Raphael and Lucifer  mini-epic is available at this address: https://goo.gl/SkBFL1

THE BOOK with essay and notes is available on Amazon  at http://goo.gl/C32i3H\  and The Book Depository at  http://goo.gl/YOyEB0

(The book’s brief INTRODUCTION is reproduced below).

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING – THE PROMOTION QUESTION

It’s not because Raphael is  “just” poetry, and certainly not any kind of “bad” poetry that this published author’s rather ambitious project doesn’t come with the imprimatur of  standard publication and promotion. One of the few UK publishers who accepts both religion and poetry today, acknowledged this is poetry to the highest  standard; but since I am not known for a performance poet nor am resident in UK for promotion purposes (so vital in publishing today), they couldn’t afford the risk of taking me on.

Actually they suggested  a certain Australian publisher might oblige. Of that story perhaps another time, but sufficient to say any religion/poetry combination is seriously hard to get through any hoops anywhere today. Agents don’t normally reckon to represent verse of any sort. Also I am not living in a metropolitan area to be in contact with the club of “right” literary persons and circles – who probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. Years ago a leading Australian poet refused me for Penguin New Poets for presuming to include – despite what they admitted was some superior “Virgilan”  writing –  “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow'”. …..

With almost everyone and everything to hinder  – the reason I abandoned anything poetic as a waste of time for over two decades – all the more reason  if you appreciate this project, that in the interests of supporting a wider range for poetry today (not to say freedom of thought more generally) you care sufficiently to  “like” it, review it, buy it, share it but essentially do whatever helps spread the word in a world of social media.

RAPHAEL AND LUCIFER:  THE INTRODUCTION (REPRODUCED) 

All the poems in this collection are to a lesser or greater extent visionary or metaphysical in a way poetry today doesn’t tend to be. Even so, they are still much involved with contemporary issues, persons or feelings. In theme and style however, Raphael and Lucifer stands apart from the rest of the collection as being a mini-epic.

Raphael is a deliberate experiment on two levels. First and obviously it is an exercise in poetic composition, specifically an adaptation, or at least evocation of, the now half lost traditions of epic and the Miltonics of especially Paradise Lost. (Mini-epic looks back to Catullus).

Second, there is an exercise in presenting and representing some often ignored, virtually censored but still developing ideas with regard to human origins. My own views as a doctor of religious studies are more fluid and liberal than those of any true blue creationist would ever be, but broadly I accept notions of theistic creation and ID (intelligent design which last, incidentally, is not the province of specifically Christian thinkers only). Given my bias, I have become increasingly aware how such belief can too easily finish treated in ways which leave meaningful argument, new facts and simple logic out of the picture. The situation can be unhelpful to the cause of truth generally and the spiritual life more particularly (even the question of divine existence and speaking of it in schools may now be involved) and we need to consider this.

Poetry is one medium that has always supported wide and sometimes unusual perspectives on things. Also, from the mythical Orpheus on through the Roman Lucretius and the English Milton and numerous tribal bards around the world, poets have been concerned with the nature of things, the mystery, spectacle and origins of life. Modern poetry has largely abandoned the theme although Ted Hughes stirringly translated Ovid’s curiously biblical evocation of a creation in the celebrated Metamorphoses. In my own case it has been appropriation of the mysteries of existence (and effectively the popularization of unbelief too) by media gurus like David Attenborough and Brian Cox, spurred me towards some poetic reaction.

Though both creationists and evolutionists can be charged with a literalism that insufficiently appreciates Genesis as poetry, it could be objected no one not a scientist, whether evolutionist or creationist, can really enter their arena of contention today with much authority. I disagree. It is well known and notoriously so, that the greater part of the educated public that bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was not able to understand it. The smallest minority of us are qualified scientists (or theologians) but this need not preclude us from drawing a few general conclusions about life and our place in the universe. Sometimes the issues science presents to laypersons invite almost more the application of some logical and philosophical thinking than negotiation of the most rarefied physics and mathematical theory. If Richard Dawkins openly disdains even to reply to dissenters, it is maybe time for dissenters to dismiss the blizzard of scientific data thrown at them in favour of more insistence upon examination of the basic reasoning involved with it.

Apart from the fact – a generalization but not unfair – that the operation of evolution is extrapolated from evidence for examples of micro-evolution not notably demonstrated at the macro level (which instead reveals sudden changes), essentially we are faced with two parties who claim a guiding authority for whatever declarations they make. In one case the authority is the bible and on the other “science” with its methodology. But just as biblical studies can open upon considerable divergences of opinion over sources and the interpretation of texts, so the empirical science which gets packaged for popular consumption makes claims which often conceal the range of speculation, theory and disagreement behind them. It is not unreasonable for example, to stress, as would especially creationists, that there can be quite a gap between “observational” science which treats of data reliant on tests that can be repeated, and “historical” science which offers data not directly testable and observable.

Since moreover even evolutionists are compelled to concede the limits to any account of origins via natural selection and genetic mutation alone, practically much of the argument beyond the welter of facts boils down to two differing treatments of a time factor. There is the story of a development across a time span necessarily assumed rather than absolutely proved to be almost infinite in order to cover for observed changes in the absence of a Creator to guide them. Then there is the narrative of a more designed creation over a short, or at least shorter, time span by a Creator who wouldn’t need time on an extreme scale for the often statistically improbable accidents and transitions of evolution to arrive at present human life. For both parties so much is involved with just interpretation of their facts and a species of faith that there can never be too much agreement. At most one can hope for the open discussion by no means always in evidence.

We hear much of the prejudices of creationists because they can seem obvious – almost everyone knows at least a little about Genesis which can then be dismissed as mere myth as against recently made scientific discoveries whose authority will go unquestioned. We hear less of the insufficiently examined a prioris, prejudices, even eccentricities of atheist evolutionists. These are well symbolized by the way in which the distinguished Genome Project scientist, Francis Collins, an evangelical but one who nonetheless accepts evolution, is still dismissed as a clown by most fellow scientists simply because their position is effectively that today no one but an atheist can be a true scientist. This is unacceptable and absurd, especially now there are some scientists in the style of Francis Crick, the pioneer in DNA research, prepared to attribute life on earth to extraterrestrials because of the difficulty of letting evolution account for just everything.

No more need be said in introduction. Any further points can be referred to the notes and the postscript since otherwise there is a danger the reader will not open themselves to the spirit of the poem and will approach it with already too many arguments to absorb it for what it is on its own level.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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BAROQUE: A POEM

BAROQUE

(The impressions in this poem are a composite of several experiences; no single baroque church is described and I am aware that not all baroque churches are dark and shadowy but sometimes quite light)

BAROQUE

Below weighty pillars and arches
Unpraying eyes in silence observe them:
Donors all richly attired attending the Virgin,
St Helen in triumph for tomb find and cross piece
Alexandria’s Catherine presenting her wheel.
They, like Jerome in wilderness tatters nursing
A lion, all once shone in their frames now
Much lost to high gloom, their oils half rotted
And bled into canvas that age, incense
And candle smoke darken. The coloured remains
Bear witness, fixed by grand gestures, to
Saints’ tales, pious half truths dependent
For meaning and standing on rivers and fires
Of God’s story otherwise lost to shadows or absent,
A stranger to even side altar themes.

If faith should be seen, of divine source
There’s nothing to view save the host, “he”
As wafer behind a cabinet’s doors (1)
And hidden entirely if no monstrance (2)
Bears him about in brief sunburst of gold gleam
Or above a high altar no agony’s glimpsed. There
A figure more darkened, the crucified
Hangs nailed as though it might be forever,
Sad eyes directed to heaven, limbs strained
To pure immolation. He, less Lord than an
Ever sacrificed lamb, is still caught in a
Hell world scarce overcoming earth’s ills and
The curse, unless by whatever it’s trusted
Can be re-enacted by priest’s hands amid
This scented but mouldering pomp. There
Celestial power must be drawn through
The shadows, upheld and furthered by prayers
Of the many but lessening faithful… (3)

There’s a life I am drawn to outside.
No dome to enclose nor candles to soothe me
Air, sunlight, earth and luminous sea
Let these meet and surround me. With these
Rising Godward I’ll speak into heaven
For miraculous change having chosen
Self within light, promise taken from (4)
Dawn Star and bright noon of sure resurrection. (5)
Without you, pure elements sensed and
Desired I cannot own fullness of Truth,
Cannot obtain what soul should acquire
With strength of corporeal feeling and
Nature, holding thoughts and images naked
As Francis in quest of meaning and grace. (6)
The point of reception is here, now, even
This temple, the body; with this I greet change.

NOTES

1) cabinet i.e. the tabernacle where the host is reserved
2) An implicit critique of the transubstantiation miracle whereby  Christ is not a sacrifice once offered (Heb 9:28) but repeatedly offered when the priest transforms the bread and wine.
3) A monstrance is a vessel that carries the host in processions behind glass typically surrounded by a sunburst design in gold with a cross above it.
4) Miraculous.change i.e. of soul preceding and leading to change of body (resurrection) rather than trans-elementation of bread.
5) Christ is the Morning Star (2 Pet 1:19, Rev 22:16) though Lucifer can be called that but not the Sun in full strength (Rev 1:16) i.e. noonday. A new dawn promises the various fulfilments of noonday.
6) Francis is St Francis who divested himself of his clothes to return them to his father. He also preached a sermon in the nude.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Poetry, religion, Uncategorized

 
 
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