Never Forget that the World is Beautiful

You, and I, should read more poetry.

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Emily Dickinson, 1452

Never forget that the world is beautiful, nor that there is more to this world than the world.

If they but knew!  They’re steeped in luck, country people,
being far removed from grinds of war, where earth that’s just
showers them with all that they could ever ask for.
So what if he hasn’t a mansion with gates designed to impress
and callers traipsing in and out all morning long.
So what if there’s not rabble gawking at the entrance with its gaudy tortoiseshell veneer,
and tapestries with gold filigree, and bronzes plundered on a march to Corinth.
So what if their wool’s merely bleached and not stained with Assyrian dyes,
and the olive oil they use hasn’t been diluted with that tint of cinnamon —
no, what they have is the quiet life — carefree and no deceit —
and wealth untold — their ease among cornucopia,
with grottoes, pools of running water and valleys cool even in warm weather,
the sounds of cattle and sweet snoozes in the shade.
There are glades and greenwoods, lairs of game,
young men wed to meagre fare but born and built for work.
Here, too, is reverence for God and holy fathers, and it was here
that Justice left her final footprints as she was taking leave of earth.
And as for me, my most ardent wish is that sweet Poetry,
whose devotee I am, smitten as I’ve been with such commitment,
would open up to me the courses of the stars in heaven,
the myriad eclipses of the sun and phases of the moon,
whence come earthquakes, which are the reason deep seas surge
to burst their bounds before receding peacefully,
and are why winter suns dash to dip themselves into the ocean
and are what causes long nights to last and linger.

Virgil, Georgics, II.458-83

Thoughts (Borrowed) While Looking at the Sky in Maine

By such signs, and on foot of such examples,
some say that bees have supped a draught that is divine,
that, as a matter of true fact, a god pervades the whole wide world,
sea’s expanse and heaven’s height,
whence flocks and herds and men, and all species of savage beast,
derive that fine line of life the second they are born.
And, what’s more, to him all things return in time, dissolved
and reabsorbed; there is no place for death–instead they soar,
still alive–to take their rightful place among the stars.
Georgics, IV.219-27 (trans. Fallon)
If, reader, I had ampler space in which
to write, I’d sing–though incompletely–that
sweet draught for which my thirst was limitless;
but since all of the pages pre-disposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.
From the most holy wave I now returned
to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are
renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was
pure and prepared to climb unto the stars
Purgatorio, XXXIII.136-145 (trans. Mandelbaum)

I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Last quarter I was lucky enough to work as a writing intern for a course which read Dante’s Inferno.  I love Dante, despite (more likely because of) feeling that I’ll never do more than scratch the surface of the Commedia.  Mostly, I just hang back and wonder at it.  A few images in particular that stood out on this read through.

In the 7th Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil enter a vast forest, the suicides.  I read this while sitting in front of a fire filled with snow-damp branches:


Then I stretched out my hand a little way

and from a great thornbush snapped off a branch

at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?”

And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,

it asked again: “Why do you break me off?”

Are you without all sentiment of pity?

As from a sapling log that catches fire

along one of its ends, while at the other

it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,

so from that broken stump issued together

both words and blood; at which I let the branch

fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.


Later, he runs into Ugolino in the circle of traitors:


We had already taken leave of him,

when I saw two shades frozen in one hole,

so that one’s head served as the other’s cap;

and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread,

one sinner dug his teeth into the other

right at the place where brain is joined to nape

[Ugolino explains that he was walled into a tower with his sons, whom he watches die one by one of starvation.]

But after we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo,

throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet,

implored me: ‘Father, why do you not help me?’

And there he died, and just as you see me,

I saw the other three fall one by one

between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,

now blind, I started groping over each:

and after they were dead, I called them for

two days; then fasting had more force than grief.”


When he had spoken this, with eyes awry,

again he gripped the sad skull in his teeth,

which, like a dog’s, were strong down to the bone.

“then fasting had more force than grief” is wonderfully (horribly?) ambiguous way to end what I’ve always found to be the most compelling speech in the Inferno.  On the whole though, Inferno is my least favorite of the Comedy, which is maybe why my favorite lines are the final:

XXXIV, 133-139

My guide and I came on that hidden road

to make our way back into the bright world;

and with no care for any rest, we climbed —

he first, I following — until I saw,

through a round opening, some of those things

of beauty Heaven bears.  It was from there

that we emerged, to see — once more — the stars.

As a bonus, Dante inspired me to revisit Virgil, mainly because the Georgics was already sitting on my desk.  I can’t articulate or even understand what makes Virgil great, I just know that he is great:

Georgics, I.47-50

Come the sweet o’ the year when streams begin to melt and tumble down the heavy hills

And clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds,

it’s time again to put the bull before the deep-pointed plough to pull his weight

and have the share glisten, burnished by the broken sod.