Poetry Porch: Prose


The Exile’s Luminous Journey 

A Meditation, by Chris Wallace-Crabbe 

        Our lives, like those of Odysseus and Noah, have long been imaged as a journey. We are distinguished by coming from and going to. Great poems, long and short, address themselves to this journeying, this living, and ask what makes it tick: what makes it, thought mortal, successful.
        The great journey which is so symmetrically bodied forth in The Divine Comedy has a curiously piggy-back quality. The narrator, who is at the same time Dante the Florentine himself, begins in the middle of one journey where he has found himself bushed, and moves sideways out of that common narrative into a far more exotic story: into a fantastic journey which is also (note the word carefully) a Comedy. Nel mezzo dellcammin di nostra vita: we are also on our way to somewhere else, to another place which is also Everywhere. 
        But only believers can journey to Everywhere, which is also Paradise. We are not yet in the novecento mind of Samuel Beckett, who could write, in his consideration of Proustthe Dante of our timethat “The only paradise is that which has been lost.”
       Virgil, the great, pagan poet who had both the knowledge and the courage to lead the living Dante through the terrifying gate of Hell and down through its successive bolges or rings, cannot himself enter Paradise. It is ironic, in a way: Dante the exile can enter Paradise, yet Virgil, the great national poet, the rooted, bucolic Mantuan, can never do so. Or, to put the matter in secular terms, Dante revenges himself not only on his enemies, frying or freezing in Hell, but on the life process which made him a political exile. He is the poet; he has the recuperative power to imitate the creation itself, certainly to recreate a self who travels through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise while still alive. The exile comes home, a fortiori.
       As Dante claims to his readers in Paradiso, canto two, “The seas I dare were never sailed before.” And when we read this line, late in the Comedy, we might all too easily forget that our hard-bitten narrator began in the midst of a journey which he shared with everyone else. 
       Is poetry then, at its most heroic heights, always a journey, again and again a traveling designed to imitate or parallel the traveling which we are all undertaking? Dante certainly doubles or trebles such suggestions. He, the Florentine poet writing in Verona (close enough to Virgil’s natal soil), draws upon Virgil, whose masterwork was an account of the loss, exile, and travels of Aeneas, by legendary testimony the cultural forebear of all Romans, and hence of all Italians. 
       So, as James Joyce would have realized, the role of the poet is to have been displaced from some locus or garden of truth which can only be recovered by means of language, its magic, and its musical form. And comedy is, of course, the literary form in which characters get to success or to the Great Good Place at the end; comedy feigns delightfully the recovery of Paradise. For Christians it might be said, in Aristotelian terms, the Old Testament was a great tragedy, the New Testament the supreme comedy. The New Testament is the book of divine recuperation; its deus ex machina does not need strings or wings because he is God himself. 
       But a perfect comedy, in dramatic terms, is very shapely. The Bible is too much of a collage to adhere to an Aristotelian aesthetic; it is not classical. Dante’s Comedy, his fictive journey, his divine epic, is not classical either, yet  supremely shapely. Its threes and their multiples, its exigent terza rima, these are not merely symbols of the Trinity, as Belief reads them; they are also testimony to Dante’s intense commitment to art, to shaping, to symmetry. Terza rima is a measuremanageable in Italian, though not in English, but still a measure; and it lays that measure across and alongside raw, shaggy life, that unsatisfactory region of the blocking leopard, the proud lion, and the skinny she-wolf, the last bitter parody of that she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Measure holds all in a balance. Art is long. Why? Because it is so made. That is to say, made to last, like a classical form carved out of the very finest Carrara marble. 
       The Divine Comedy is in this artistic sense both superbly static and dynamically mobile. On the one hand, it is balanced, harmonious, utterly resolved, poised in its resolution within a light which is also love; on the other, it is a great yarn, the tale of a journey through the underworld and up on a flight into unbounded space, transcending the mere world on which we happen, or are doomed, to live. And the journey grips us, not merely because of its linear what-nextness, but also because Dante’s theological geography has been so zanily and elaborately detailed, knocking Tolkein or C. S. Lewis into a cocked hat. 
       Just to knit the whole journey into its just circularity, making it feel spot-on, as what Emerson called “Autobiography in colossal cipher,” Dante locks his narrative into human time again in Paradiso, canto seventeen, by having the poet’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, prophesy the dark chain of events which will drive the poet out of his native Florence and make him an exile at the court of Can Grande della Scala. 
       In a subtle literary transaction, old (or timeless) Cacciaguida will balance the terrestrial truths which he reveals to the poet-as-character against his injunction to that poet to tell all his extraterrestrial truths and adventures when he returns to life and history. The poem is both inside and outside history; it is anchored to time, but not constrained by our mortal sense of temporal sequence. Thus the traveler, Dante, finds the history of his own time and times past telescoped, inverted, and deconstructed amid the estranging landscapes of Hell and Purgatory, but he is swimming through the textures of these regions freely, because he belongs to that utterly different medium, life. His separateness is encapsulated in that old New Yorker cartoon in which Dante looks past Virgil’s laurelled head and over the bow of their streaming punt and explains to an especially puzzled damned soul, “Oh no, I’m not here to stay. I’m just gathering material for a book.”
       The book is a pilgrimage. Exile becomes science fiction, but in a sacred edition. The pilgrim, who was an exile, is now master of the text in which he not only retells himself but transcends the world. The huge claim of this poem is that art becomes love, grace, and light. It is more than the mere life which made it. And this claim is saved from the aesthetic heresy by being sacred, by claiming to be a truly Christian revelation of the journey’s final meaning and apotheosis. 

Copyright © 2001 by Chris Wallace-Crabbe.