La divina foresta, la selva antica: the paradise garden is an ancient wood, a divine forest, not some florid menagerie, some viney treasury of orchid and rose. The poet traverses the space between the selva oscura and the selva antica, and somehow he must see the one in the other. The poet sneaks his pastorella into paradise, and therein lies his genius; cut loose from his ancient formidable guide, he can’t help but conjure his mysterious shepherdess gathering flowers, his streams, trees, twittering birds, all the “variousness of everblooming May.” The accomplished poet is an accomplished earth-smuggler.
Because, how strange! On the mountaintop…a pastoral!
The poet walks through fire, walks onward alone, free of Virgil, yet on the other side of fire what does he encounter but a georgic! Didactic verse about the Edenic atmosphere. Even in paradise, the poet will carry the earth within him (an earthly paradise). What is the poet’s commedia but a well-wrought time-capsule, a golden vessel laden with clay?
Poets are always aspiring meteorologists.
It greens the highest peak, but paradise is still earth. The moon is still above it. It’s the fantastic inwardness of the land that distinguishes it from earth, the secret mechanism that makes its vegetation grow, its winds blow, its water flow. Something in the land pumps differently. No hoe has broken it; the land has its heart intact.
The poet, king of himself, is still a pauper without Persephone.
The walk through fire and then a discovery, still, of such simplicity. A breeze, birds, a woman gathering flowers. This is it right here: the poet should rest right here, in this locus amoenus, and not venture on toward the griffon and all the marvelous abstraction that follows.
The poet straddles the fork of Lethe and Eunoë—the forgetting of sin and the memory of the good. Of course, the order matters, from which river you drink—Lethe first and Eunoë second. But sometimes the poet mixes up his rivers. He gets his ladles crossed.
How perfect and heartbreaking is the final image of Canto XXVIII! The backward look to the poet-guides, the gentle affirming smile: this is the poet’s summit, an apex of restraint and simplicity (here I think of a phrase Wayne Koestenbaum coined for the work of Louise Glück: a poet of the minimalist ecstatic)—only a smile and the basso continuo of the Prime Mover in the trees.
* * *
Ah Helicon! Ah Urania! Make way for the procession of footnotes!
From the calm center, after the smooth continuo, the cymbal crash of the grand pageant. This is what happens if you venture fifty paces farther from Virgil: the poet’s simple radiance, so delicately achieved, refracts, as if through the ‘bejeweled vision’ and ‘geodic skull’ of John the Revelator (phrases from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Icarium Mare”.) A griffon!
I think the greatest challenge for a poet of faith might be negotiating the borderland between pastoral and apocalyptic. To skyrocket from the murmuring stream to the cosmic candelabra, from the steady breeze to the roar of a heavenly chariot. Such a thin membrane between Pan’s pipe and the angelic trumpet. Let’s go back a bit, Matilda.
The poet moves so quickly from restraint to strain. Twice he calls attention to the arduous task of presenting these magnificent visions in rhyme. It’s not that the poet has shifted from description to allegory, from image to symbol, for we’ve never left the realm of symbol. Instead the poet catapults here into a reservoir of preexisting biblical symbol and that shift in symbolic register, from innovative imagery to hieratic biblical collage, is necessarily abrupt. The poet leaves Virgil and Statius for Ezekiel and John. The former guides look on in awe, we’re told, but I think they shake their heads a little bit.
At what point to you stop following the poet. When do you say, “Let’s bivouac here, big guy, in the leafy tents of the selva antica?” I fear the Paradiso. I long to return to the land where a mere shadow caused such a stir.