When the pilgrim Dante has come forth at last from the jaws of hell to look upon the stars of heaven again, he does not do what the modern writer is required to do. He does not enter the overheated boudoir of his feelings, to rummage in the closet and come forth with objects that are, mercifully, hard to describe. We expect better than that, and he doesn’t disappoint.
If you’ve only just scaled the hairy hide of Satan, frozen at the centre of the world, you might cut a caper or two. I defer to those who have had the experience. Dante does more. He cries:
Ma qui la morta poesi resurga, O sante Muse, poi ch’i’ vostro sono!
One must, of course, sing it in Italian. For liturgical novices I shall translate:
Let the dead poetry rise to life again, O holy Muses, for I am your own!
A modern reader, or a schoolboy chewing the end of his pencil, might shrug and say that this is no great shakes. The man has been through hell. Now he’s free of it, so he gets to sing about things other than eternal death.
Not exactly, Master Modern; and please sit up and take that pencil eraser out of your mouth.
In the light of Easter, all human action is transformed. Dante doesn’t mean that his poetry will have more polka to it now that it’s above ground. Poetry itself must rise. Poetry itself, unredeemed by Christ, is a dead thing. It may be grand and noble. So it was when sung by Homer and Virgil. But it cannot rise beyond itself. Nor are we always blessed with Homer and Virgil.
When Jesus descended into hell, he set free not only the souls of those who longed for the Messiah. He set Adam free, and Adam’s children. He took captivity captive. The arts were captive, but Christ ushered them out of hell to see beyond the skies they had been used to seeing. Orpheus the singer lulled the sentries of hell into submission, but even he failed to bring his beloved Eurydice back to earth. And had he done so, what was in the offing, but some years in Asia Minor? A pleasant land, perhaps; but not the new Jerusalem.
Dante and other Christian artists didn’t just sing and sculpt and paint about Easter. Their very ways of art were Easter ways. They worked beyond themselves, as saints are men and women beyond themselves. There’s a lesson here for modern art, whose museums are not, as is sometimes alleged, like morgues. In morgues, we sometimes recognise the bodies.
Sing out then, even in translation: Let the dead poetry rise to life again!
Professor Anthony Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire