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The Speed of Verse

September 20, 2009

“What does one need to say poetry, Mr. Stanhope?” she asked.
Stanhope laughed. “What but the four virtues, clarity, speed, humility, courage? Don’t you agree?”
The old lady looked at Mrs. Sammile. “Do you?” she asked.
Lily Sammile shrugged. “O, if you’re turning poems into labours,” she said. “But we don’t all want to speak poetry, and enjoyment’s a simple thing for the rest of us.”
“We do all want to speak it,” Stanhope protested. “Or else verse and plays and all art are more of dreams than they need to be. They must always be a little so, perhaps.”

–Charles Williams, Descent into Hell

In that part of the year when the sun
begins to warm its locks beneath Aquarius
and nights grow shorter equaling the days,
when hoarfrost mimes the image of his white
sister upon the ground–but not for long,
because the pen he uses is not sharp–
the farmer who is short of fodder rises
and looks and sees the fields all white, at which
he slaps his thigh, turns back into the house,
and here and there complains like some poor wretch
who doesn’t know what can be done, and then
goes out again and gathers up new hope
on seeing that the world has changed its face
in so few hours, and he takes his staff
and hurries out his flock of sheep to pasture.
So did my master fill me with dismay
when I saw how his brow was deeply troubled,
yet then the plaster soothed the sore as quickly:
for soon as we were on the broken bridge,
my guide turned back to me with that sweet manner
I first had seen along the mountain’s base.
And he examined carefully the ruin;
then having picked the way we would ascend,
he opened up up his arms and thrust me forward.
And just as he who ponders as he labors,
who’s always ready for the step ahead,
so, as he lifted me up toward the summit
of one great crag he’d see another spur,
saying: “That is the one you will grip next,
but try it first to see if it is firm.”
That was no path for those with cloaks of lead,
for he and I–he, light; I, with support–
could hardly make it up from spur to spur.
And were it not for that, down from this enclosure,
the slope was shorter than the bank before,
I cannot speak for him, but I should surely
have been defeated. But since Malebolge
runs right into the mouth of its last well,
the placement of each valley means it must
have one bank high and have the other short;
and so we have reached, at length, the jutting where
the last stone of the ruined bridge breaks off.
The breath within my lungs was so exhausted
from climbing, I could not go on; in fact,
as soon as I had reached that stone, I sat.
“Now you must cast aside your laziness,”
my master said, “for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.
Therefore, get up; defeat this breathlessness
with spirit that can win all battles if
the body’s heaviness does not deter it.
A longer ladder still is to be climbed;
If you have understood, now profit from it.”
Then I arose and showed myself far better
equipped with breath than I had been before:
“Go on for I am strong and confident.”
We took our upward way upon the ridge,
with crags more jagged, narrow, difficult,
and much more steep than we had crossed before.
I spoke as we went on, not to seem weak …
–Dante, Inferno, Canto XX

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