Their Smiles Intact: A Canon’s Afterlife
In memory of Geoffrey Hill
Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel
States of mind are inexplicable to us.
— Ezra Pound
I find myself not wanting to explain, but still to articulate. My present state is a quietness lacking neither voices nor music, though often wordless. Or I could say I’m standing still to listen within a single protracted word, within a pause to be articulated as the land to which I go. This word appears where canon ends. Instead of explanations, then, questions arise. What sort of poetry, what sort of poet, continues here? To be themselves, poems must own ground: their local habitation and proper names. Always, to my mind, flowers are the borders of that ground and therefore of the questions. Flowers blazon images, first emblems of affirmation. Shelley, in Pisa (“le paradis n’est pas artificiel”) and on the borders of a quietness all his own, gave his mind over to one Matilda gathering flowers and the instance of her nearly wordless flower-song: Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII. I likewise, almost originally, find myself precisely, fixedly there. I cannot read it enough. The canto is the brink of Paradise, a pause without dimensions whose only explanation is itself: a word foreshadowed by a garden.
Only the imparadised can comprehend intensity and continuity as leisures. Yet at the beginning of Purgatorio XXVIII, in sight of Eden, Dante stands near enough to Paradise to glimpse as much. He explores the new motion, finding it the perfect embodiment of dense and greeny stillness. In Allen Mandelbaum’s peerless contemporary English —
Now keen to search within, to search aroundthat forest — dense, alive with green, divine —which tempered the new day before my eyes,without delay, I left behind the riseand took the plain, advancing slowly, slowlyacross the ground where every part was fragrant.
Finding myself not wanting to explain, but still to articulate, I am searching for the slower words and the densest lines, not to be difficult, but to be engrossed within a state that is the edge of finale. I want to speak the intensity of almost nothing left to say. After such a long and difficult arising, Dante finds a level plane. It is dense and alive, in every part fragrant. Its continuity requires no effort at all, even as the poet’s senses brook no delay. Dante is at the end of himself, to the extent that his self has been a canon, piloted by Virgil, later joined by Statius, moving. In Pisa, near the end of himself, Shelley chose to translate these same lines as simulacra of his own flamboyant edge.
And earnest to explore within — around —The divine wood, whose thick green living woofTempered the young day to the sight — I woundUp the green slope, beneath the forest’s roof,With slow, soft steps leaving the mountain’s steep,And sought those inmost labyrinths, motion-proofAgainst the air, that in that stillness deepAnd solemn, struck upon my forehead bare,The slow, soft stroke of a continuous ...— From Matilda Gathering Flowers
The word “around,” coupled with “within,” profuses a density soon confirmed by “inmost labyrinths.” And twice Shelley, like Dante (“lento, lento”) emphasizes the slowness with which poetry now approaches and savors this finale. (Justly, inevitably it would seem, Shelley’s very last verses — the fragments of “The Triumph of Life” — would be written in Dante’s measure and according to a Dantesque scenario.) Canon closes in. In Canto XXVIII, although he does not know it, Dante has taken a step beyond the limits of Statius and Virgil. Although he does not know it, they have nothing more to say. Richard Holmes, Shelley’s finest biographer, describes his subject’s crisis days in Pisa as showing “Shelley’s need to draw support and stimulation from more purely literary sources.” Hence his decision to begin translating Dante, and his most telling decision to begin with Purgatorio XXVIII: the brink of an ending. Support, needfully, withdraws in the moment of most need. At its limits, canon becomes most dense, most intense. Words slow. Lines profuse inwards. There are nearly too many flowers to be named.
I cannot explain my state of mind, but my peculiar canon — a lifetime’s reading, a life as reading — leans towards me lovingly, and on a breath of something paradisal (poems, flowers) it whispers articulation. I think of Shelley in the last years of his writing life because he was the poet who figured most forcefully at the beginning of my own. His Ariel image was possibility, and his line was a perfect animal leaping. In graduate school, I owned two copies of the Holmes biography, so as never to be far. The fact that, in his last years, Shelley turned to Dante as I have lately turned with an almost exclusive passion, helps me and schools me, shedding light whose explanation, as always, is itself. That Shelley should have turned specifically to Purgatorio XXVIII, translating the fragment that Mary Shelley later named “Matilda Gathering Flowers,” heartens me more than I can say. But Shelley tried to say, and Dante did. Here is where my canon leans very close. Coming to the end of poetry as he has loved and understood it, Dante, on the margin of Eden, sees across waters a woman gathering flowers. She sings a song whose words are purely sounds to him — lovely sounds. It is a pivot moment, and a vast, slow pause: hence the leisure of “around” and “within” and the “inmost labyrinths, motion-proof.” I feel my state of mind as a lavish enigma prior to departure, a conclusion prior to an end. The poetry I want is an afterword to the poems I have made. Matilda’s flowers and her wordless, enchanting vocables put the case perfectly. In Purgatorio XXVIII, forecast from my beginnings by Shelley’s end, Dante articulates the state of canons advancing upon farewell “across the ground where every part was fragrant.”
These intensities of fragrance and of music, in their deep affiliation to the ends of canon, are foregrounded before Dante ever hears Matilda sing. Throughout the Commedia, poetry is a filial matter, an autobiographical vow expressed as cosmos. In his epic’s quest for a continuing city, Virgil fathered his Florentine successor; now he guides him towards the Civitas Dei a pagan cannot know but may sometimes approach as the shadowy backward of a Christian’s ravishment. Continuity is leisure, yes, but there is an eternity of difference between Virgil’s leisure among the virtuous pagans and the dense engrossment of his pilgrim ephebe in Paradise. One is resignation; the other is bliss. In Purgatorio, the foregrounding nears completion in Canto XXI with the appearance of Statius. He is a spirit bridge, a Latin poet and a Christian; his filial piety inclines backwards towards his beloved master, maker of the Aeneid, even as it leans, joyously, into imminent salvation and the City of God. To have been a contemporary of Virgil, Statius avows, he would gladly spend another year on the mount of Purgatory. But only the one year. Canon is canon. Bliss is elsewhere. Yet one love bridges both. And it is this love that impels the journey only perfect love can end. At the close of Canto XXI, in a moment of sublime tenderness and rigor, canon discloses its limits and also the final virtue of imperfection. Statius bows down to kiss his master’s feet —
but Virgil told him: “Brother, there’s no need —you are a shade, a shade is what you see.”And rising, he: “Now you can understandhow much love burns in me for you, when Iforget our insubstantiality,treating the shades as one treats solid things.”— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Within the posture of a true piety, canon exchanges a gaze with itself, inmost labyrinth to inmost labyrinth (as Shelley might have said). These poets, impeccable as they are, have no words for the farther music.
My state of mind is now wholly inclined towards the farther music, but having few if any suitable words of my own just yet, I hesitate even as I feel a deepening conviction that Purgatorio XXVIII foreshadows, in flowers and in sounds, matters I must learn. It is from Dante, after all, that poetry first took fire with the impersonal vernacular as pure autobiography. Autobiography is all my concern now that the end of my writing life is in sight. It’s not so much a matter of putting my affairs in order as it is of parsing the vast pause I, and most likely everyone, inhabit where the canon of each of us comes to a close. I go back to the late appearance of Statius for Dante’s good reason: company. It is so moving that, even as he begins to sense the limits of canon, Dante calls the shades of repentant poets towards him: Statius, Guinizelli, Arnaut Daniel. He wants a density of allusion even as the usefulness of allusion reaches its limits. In recent months, I am almost giddy with allusion — keen for its use, keen for its familiar company. I must be practicing the obscurity of candor, i.e. an uttermost vernacular. In any case, I will postpone Canto XXVIII a little while longer, wishing for clarity as the substance of delay.
On the brink of Eden’s earthly paradise, language enjoys a final say before giving way to keener sounds — wind in the trees, small birds calling from the branches, Matilda’s singing wordlessly among riverside flowers. Canto XXVII ends with Dante waking from a dream.
the shadows fled upon all sides; my sleepfled with them; and at this, I woke and sawthat the great teachers had already risen.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
The “great teachers” (Statius and Virgil) keep, for one last time, the vigil of precedent. Statius is silent. Canon has no foresight beyond the speech and gestures by which it knows itself. What Dante is about to experience is wisdom freed from inwardness — vision plain. Virgil’s has been a reflected light, a reflective wisdom. His guidance has only a farewell to say, in accents of abdication. Words give place to Word and lights to Light.
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubsborn here, spontaneously, of the earth.Among them, you can rest or walk untilthe coming of the glad and lovely eyes —those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.Await no further word or sign from me …— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Ratio abdicates in favor of pleasure. The sole imperative is “look.” Summoned to a greater leisure in the garden where to rest and to walk articulate a single, inviolable pause (i.e. Eden), Dante becomes all eyes in sight of “the glad and lovely eyes” of his eventual Beatrice. Her word will be her name, not a text. Her image will be a sight, not a sign. Where the poets leave off, continuity foresees rest and motion united. The farther poem engrosses just this measureless singularity.
And yet, for the moment, singularity is a solitude unspeakably intense, albeit pregnant with reunion. In my present state of mind, I feel it exactly so. Any poem I currently imagine crowds itself into single words, isolate in their density and aching, not for the next word, but for the image of a name. I cannot say it. That task falls to a farther smile: “Ben son, ben son Beatrice.” Having made his translation of the opening tercets of Purgatorio XXVIII, Shelley transposed Dante’s intensity into an agon of his own. As Richard Holmes explains, Shelley took “Matilda Gathering Flowers” and “developed it into the completed poem ‘The Question,’ with its ornate and exquisitely assembled description of a nosegay of ‘visionary flowers.’” The flowers are sudden and unprecedented — “Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring” — as sudden, surely, as Virgil’s silence and then Matilda’s wordless song were to Dante. The flowers are, Shelley declares, “visionary” — as visionary, say, as those in Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “a bloom more sudden / Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading, / Not in the scheme of generation.” And yet, lacking the image of the eventual paradisal name, the plain utterance of which explains everything, the flowers embody only isolation and then the ache of it. Shelley concludes
Methought that of these visionary flowersI made a nosegay, bound in such a wayThat the same hues, which in their natural bowersWere mingled or opposed, the like arrayKept these imprisoned children of the HoursWithin my hand, — and then, elate and gay,I hastened to the spot whence I had come,That I might there present it! — Oh! to whom?
There is no present without a name, and the name is not yet. Canon ends in a question canons cannot answer. Or perhaps I should say that canon’s answer is not the answer for which, in a pause without dimension, my poetry aches.
In Denise Levertov’s early poem “The Ache of Marriage” there is a passage I’ve had in mind nearly every day for the past forty years and more: “two by two in the ark of / the ache of it.” It occurs to me now that Levertov, early and alone of the poets in my life, there anticipates the location and nearly wordless threshold circumstance inside of which I write this. The passage indicates an enclosed space, an “ark” of certain but as yet featureless covenant. Marriage, like the finale I feel, is a canon of no text, an empty enclosure leaning forward, a discontinuity promising to prove a singular and everlasting continuum. Marriage, like the finale I feel, breaks with the past on behalf of outcome. At the end of canon comes a break which is canon’s true posterity. Virgil speaks no more. And so, to begin, at last I come to Purgatorio XXVIII. The opening, in both the Mandelbaum and Shelley translations cited above, signals a wholly new and different line. Time is tempered to a slower motion, a stillness ambient and overwhelmed by sense and pleasure. Stevens had it wrong in “Sunday Morning.” There is a “change of death in paradise.” The change, however, is in itself intensely changeless. (A phrase from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” comes keenly to mind: “Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”) The lines of poetry I want anymore are slow, dense with fragrance and significance and aspects of eternity aching to marry each word to the next in unforeseeable reunion. The lines, like Dante’s first motions of Eden, would cover the ark of a featureless covenant. Their music would sustain a vernal pageantry time out of mind.
My state of mind is all the mind I have. As Rousseau opined near the end of his life, in Reveries of a Solitary Walker, “my ideas are now almost nothing but sensations.” And it is, albeit briefly unaware, as a new-crowned, solitary Dante steps toward Eden in Purgatorio XXVIII. All around him, new sensations crowd their meanings upon a mind made all of sense. (Exactly as words might crowd the lines of poetry I’m hoping still to write.) It is a morning mind, datum upon datum of joys.
birds welcomed thosefirst hours of the morning joyously,and leaves supplied the burden to their rhymes —— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Meaning is here indistinguishable from location and circumstance — which is to say that the burden of meaning is no burden. The branching lines support whispering leaves and the singing birds too. Green with it all, the branches mean exactly as they are. In such a state, in such a mind, all words rhyme. I look forward to poems of such a moment. A density that is no burden would be a continuing leisure, ambient and all-inclusive.
Now, though my steps were slow, I’d gone so farinto the ancient forest that I couldno longer see where I had made my entry.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Dante’s early pleasures in the earthly paradise comprehend a limit and leave-taking of canon. The poet finds himself in a grove older than time and illumined. Eden is not the selva oscura where his pilgrimage began. Showing no point of entry, here is a place made wholly of entrances and original permissions. Means of arrival (other poets, other poems) simply do not signify. From this point on, mere being is a present statement, fixed and expansive: lines stretching to eternity.
Slow as they are (a pace, a measure as appropriate to intensity as to leisure), the poet’s steps take him to a river’s edge. On the near shore of Lethe, Dante propounds a double vision. And he does so merely by standing where he stands. At the waters of Lethe, forgetfulness and self-knowledge are one and the same. Purification and transgression are one and the same. Immersion models ascension. Cleansed of remembrance, memory becomes original once again. This double vision is everything I want for any future lines of poetry. I want them cleanly, undistracted in their entirety. Only then, in full accord with the via negativa of the classicist, might they bear witness to transcendence: a pause without dimensions. And I want them imaged to the allusive intensity of numberless flowers. Only then, in happy accord with the via affirmativa of the Romantic, will they delight in immanence: a garden never sown.
All of the purest waters here on earth,when matched against that stream, would seem to betouched by impurity; it hides no thing —that stream — although it moves, dark, dark, beneaththe never-ending shadows.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
In a darkness where nothing is hidden, in a motion fixed upon the margins of Eden, canon makes no argument. And without argument, canon is a solitary text. Reconciled, austerity and plenitude constitute a peerless singularity. Here is a strong-lined river at the edge of an ending.
It begins. Upon the far side of the river, strong in measure (the unintelligible sweetness of her song), dense in motif (the numberless flowers at her feet and in her arms), Matilda glides into view. Let us have Shelley’s version. He is bold to emphasize the giddy sensorium that revels at canon’s end.
even as a thingThat suddenly, for blank astonishment,Charms every sense, and makes all thought take wing, —A solitary woman! and she wentSinging and gathering flower after flower,With which her way was painted and besprent.
Dante is a blank of present statement — a blank all suddenly inscribed with sense. He occupies a ground not of thought, but of attention. Upon the departure of thought (and I honor Shelley for parsing it this way), exclamation takes the living form of singularity and vision: “A solitary woman!” Here is a Beatrice immediately prior to Beatrice. She is not a “screen lady” as was the woman in the Vita Nuova. Rather she is the vivid precondition of a further poetry, audible just the other side of Lethe. It is art (“painted”) and abundance (“besprent”), which is to say “pageant,” that genre which succeeds canon by proving sufficient unto itself. Beauty knows its own. Virgil explained. Matilda embodies. Virgil led. Matilda summons. One step into the waters of forgetfulness and the future life of memory is assured. (“Dove sta memora,” as Cavalcanti would have it.) Dante’s present statement — joy without comprehension, fulfillment without possession — articulates the locus of his dearest wish: that seeing might interleave the volume of belief with loves. Flowers are the brackets and ground of his wish, and in Eden, the Purgatory’s earthly paradise, they are crowns of forgetfulness and of the dense motifs, poems without pretext.
Shelley breaks off at just the moment when Matilda turns her face towards Dante. Her gesture gives immediate and entire pleasure. The music becomes articulate. Fioretti show their simple colors.
So did she turn, upon the little redand yellow flowers, to me, no differentlythan would a virgin, lowering chaste eyes.I had beseeched, and I was satisfied,for she approached so close that the sweet soundthat reached me then became intelligible.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
There is more to this turn than a simple verso. So very few steps away from canon, Dante already comes face-to-face with meaning of a new sort and instance. Eden’s primitive is prime. The transformations accomplished by Matilda’s turn are spontaneous, not sequential: suddenly reds and yellows; suddenly intelligible song. What elsewhere might require a ritual and rhetoric, acknowledgments and decorum, here springs forth in singular gesture. Cause and effect, beseeching and satisfaction breathe unitary being. Hue and melody blazon the sense of color and song, and Dante understands them. This is more than the Symbolists’ dream of pure poetry. Theirs was an idea without a concept, an occult. For my part, and in the name of happiness, I want a poetry gotten of lines prior and subsequent to purity, something prime. Its durations would signify the instance of its meanings. Its density would be self-evident, not opaque, but imaged as a leisure continuing with as well as into the next lines. Lethe promises no less.
At the end of canon, Eden shows a panoramic smile, siting an epoch upon duration. Its primitive — a first age, a first utterance — profuses inward as the garden, becoming a surround. Matilda begins:
You are new here and may — because I smilein this place, chosen to be mankind’s nest —wonder, perplexed, unable to detectthe cause.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Dante’s perplexity, as we shall see, is soon relieved. For the moment, he simply cannot understand how it is that, in Eden, breeze and freshet arise without apparent purpose or cause. Earlier in the poem, Statius (for “Statius” read “canon”) had explained to Dante that no changes of weather were possible beyond the entrance to Purgatory. But canon cannot compass origin. It hasn’t the syntax. In Canto XXVIII, climate proves to be indwelling, and indwelling confounds sequential tradition. The garden flourishes within a cause. The courses of air and water change within the changeless purpose: “this place, chosen to be mankind’s nest.” Matilda explains a nature that is new to Dante, an atmosphere “within a circle, moved by the first circling,” and thus originary prior and subsequent to any shock or surety of the New. It is almost as though Prospero and Miranda had exchanged advantages. The bittersweet irony of Shakespeare’s magus (“’Tis new to thee”) disappears when Miranda’s “O brave new world” rings true. And the Commedia allows for no denying Matilda’s truth. I like to anticipate, as any likely new line of mine, such a nest as this, where Matilda gathers flowers. She avows:
If what I’ve said were known, you would not needto be amazed on earth when growing thingstake root but have no seed that can be seen.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
The newness of such a line would be supple and self-evident. It would be strong to avow the changes of the lines around it, rooted with them, but neither seeded nor seeding. It would forego that syntax, being (to take a phrase from Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” a poem beginning “These are amazing”) distinctly one amidst a “chorus of smiles.”
Edenic nature, as Matilda explains, is the inexhaustible fullness of an each and of an every: “the holy plain ... / is full of every seed.” Difference self-replicates, and so a changeless originality sustains variety, remains prolific, all the while fixed within its garden state. The pure products of the place “cannot be gathered”; their proper use is wholly reserved in evidence. And here my wish for poetry comes in sight of home. Lines various but inwardly profused; original statements whose meanings extend not into rhetoric but into the continuing evidence of themselves in concert. Articulateness without the gather-some burden of explanation. George Herbert once forecast, “The land of spices; something understood” (“Prayer (I)”). Hart Crane recollected momently from a future he could not span, “Whispers antiphonal in azure swing” (“Atlantis”). Such lines neither seek nor constitute a canon. They might, however, anticipate an afterlife, a pause vastly articulate upon the land to which we go. Of each, it may be said, as Matilda says of the rivers of Eden,
It issues from a pure and changeless fountain,which by the will of God regains as muchas, on two sides, it pours and it divides.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
“My word I poured,” Hart Crane avowed in his last poem, “The Broken Tower.” The line I have in mind divides without diminishing. Neither is it emptied into stanza or paraphrase. It ends and never fails.
The waters are twinned in Eden, distinct but inseparable both in purpose and in proof. To my mind, they are clear lines (“pure and changeless”) in a flawless passage. And sure enough, Dante’s passage over the twin rivers Lethe and Eunoe marks the path of perfection: early steps beyond the earthly paradise towards Paradise itself. Bathed in forgetfulness, Dante remembers his and everyone’s original souls, born adepts of Eden. Crossing Eunoe then, and bathed there in memory of the Good (“dove sta memora”), original being is competent to affirm the intensity and continuity of Heaven’s leisure. Here I am bound to cite a dictum of Geoffrey Hill’s: “if we are to allow ‘intensity’ we must also press for ‘density.’” Is it wrong to imagine — which is to say “image” — perfection? Is it hapless to imagine thus in contrapuntal adumbration of eternity, “Whispers antiphonal in azure swing”? If there is still another poem of mine to make, I see it dense with affirmation. The first caesura comprises a forgetting, and the next one gladly recalls imagery setting a task. Every line is the axis of a smile, every stanza the broad and easy way from negation to “the land of spices; something understood.”
States of mind are inexplicable, but given world enough (our books are worlds, as we learned in childhood) and given words that flourish inwardness like emblems, they flower. Canons end in the continuity they cannot compass. And that is their happiness.
Then I turned round completely, and I facedmy poets; I could see that they had heardwith smiles this final corollary spoken;that done, my eyes returned to the fair woman.— Tr. by Allen Mandelbaum
Purgatorio XXVIII ends beyond any words of Statius’s or of Virgil’s, and the poets are glad. Their company, their guidance, sound and sense instance a valedictory smile. Dante turns away from all that, returning to origin. The further Commedia is pageantry. I love to learn it. Haste vanishes in rapture. The intensity of nothing more to say becomes immensity. There will be poetry in its prime.
Born in the Bronx, Donald Revell received his PhD at SUNY Buffalo and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, translations, and essays. His recent books include The English Boat (2018), Drought-Adapted Vine (2015), Tantivy (2012), and the prose work, Read Full Biography