In one of the courses I recently took at Quest, The Divine Comedy, we had an assignment to write a poem in the style of the Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy.
Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), Dante and his poem
The Divine Comedy is an early 14th century poem written in Italy by Dante while he was in exile. In chronicles Dante’s journey to the deepest pits of hell, up through purgatory, and his ascent to heaven and the Empyrean. Dante writes in, as he himself describes, a “sweet new style”, that mixes poetic genres such as the romantic and the epic.
It might seem that imitating such a great master of verse is a challenge. And trust me when I say, it is. However close we come, it seems highly unlikely that we can produce something as good as Dante while trying to imitate Dante. However, that doesn’t stop us from trying. Especially when its an assignment for class.
So that is how it began. The four of us, as this was a group assignment, gathered in one of our apartments on that faithful weekend, in order to compose TERRA CANTO.
You see, we weren’t just imitating Dante’s sweet new style; we were adding on a whole new canto to the end of the Divine Comedy, chronicling Dante’s return to Earth, or Terra, as it is called in the Italian. We felt that we could add a sense of finality to the Divine Comedy, and so we explored what might have happened to Dante when he returned to Earth after his journey. We had a whole story we wanted to tell of Dante finding himself purpose among the ranks of the living, and of an inquisition that would seek to expose Dante as a blasphemous heretic.
Establishing what we wanted to write, that was the easy part. Now we had to actually write it.
We were writing in Terza Rima, which is a specific rhyming pattern, and decasyllable, which is a specific pattern of syllables. In decasyllable, the tenth syllable must be stressed, as well as the 4th or the 6th (or both!). Terza Rima is a bit harder to explain in words, so I’ll just show you:
And so on. In writing a whole canto, we had to write approximately 150 lines. It takes a lot of work, and time. We had to not only find works that fit our story and meter, but the right words – we took an artist’s approach to the composition of Terra Canto.
We did have a lot of fun writing it though! Even though it took about 11 hours to complete in its totality, we made a fun weekend out of it. Snacking on bread and cheese and other fine Italian delicacies gave us continued motivation and energy to continue working. It really payed off in the end when we had the finished project there in front of us and though:
Wow, this is actually good.
This was confirmed when we got an A on the assignment (yay team). It was even further confirmed when the man himself, David Helfand, asked if we wanted to present our Terra Canto to the parents at parents weekend (super-yay team). It was truly an honour, and of course we agreed.
We presented and the parent’s really seemed to like it, and we got a lot of positive feedback from people. It was great to have the opportunity to put so much effort and work into a project and to feel satisfied with it at the end. It may not be Dante, but we think that we would have made him proud.
The poem is included below:
Terra Canto I (The Canto of Cantos)
As a fresh babe ripped from his mother’s womb, 1
shocked at the terror and cold of the world
and the sight of that first stranger who looms,
whose scared young voice cannot even unfurl
the loud scroll that proclaims live birth through cries 5
midwives strain to hear, viewing God’s new pearl,
so was I, ripped from God without a sigh
but a soundless soft whimper as I fell
to cold earth of that wood. How to get by
now that my guide, who saved me from my Hell, 10
remains above, and I below to spread
that holy Word which I was told to tell.
And yet, as that first stranger’s fright’ning head
soon loses its capacity to scare
and thus becomes the first love, my soul said 15
as much to purge my beating heart of fear
and turn to that great light of the kind day.
Finding my purpose, my path is now clear.
In the tradition of holy men gray,
I must put quill to blank parchment, and write 20
of He who powered Caesar and Pompey.
This thought renewed my courage, and with bright
eyes did I follow the path of God’s work
to my desk, now sure that the way was right.
Love of those above saved me from the murk 25
of this sick world. As I put my good gifts
to the divine task, never to divert
my mind from poesy, so that I may sift
the words that blessed journey brings to my lips,
and convey truth as it was, not adrift. 30
Then, as I neared my own earthly eclipse,
at my door I found, knocking, an old friend,
Who often came to speak of my new scripts.
Basilio Nocella, who would lend
his kind ear on occasion, a fine priest, 35
at this late time sought my strong will to bend
myself, on Saint Domitian’s holy feast,
to meet the friar Dominican, he
who would confront my own supposéd beasts.
As I entered the church, I longed to free 40
myself of the sick sight of that high man
who I know answers to the Holy See.
Manner and stoutness lower than his clan
his wealth and clothing denoted, this was
he who would have the primary command 45
of my own soul’s inquisition. “The laws
of God”, he began, “seem very much changed
in your rendition and filled with some flaws.
“Tell me, good poet, to not be estranged
from He who is unmoved, did you move through 50
all the three realms of our Lord thus arranged?”
And I, with Heaven’s grace to thus renew
my belief in my journey, spoke with haste:
“Yes.” My inquisitor: “He we know flew
“Over the Sea of Galilee, and chaste 55
remained His whole life, is the only one
through whom we ascend to His holy place.
“You know this truth?” And I: “At the bright sun
I did gaze, thanks to His perfect good will.
I know that if not Christ we would have none.” 60
“Your poem does not affirm that to fulfill
the needs of your salvation, holy church’s
sacraments must be taken!” Thus he trilled.
“The only act one needs to end the search
of our heart and thus reach its true locale 65
is to open to God and start to purge.
“The sacraments, when taken for God, shall
help to open one’s heart to Him, but some
open in different ways, not corralled.
“Such a spirit as Manfred, who was numb 70
to God’s love, might have been forced far below
had he not, at last moment, to God come.”
Such was my answer. And my current foe,
“Do you still then doubt the need of our baptism?”
I, with conviction of faith, replied “No”. 75
“Why, then, are those two outside of His chrism,
Emperor Trajan and Ripheus, found
in highest Heaven, when they lacked theism?”
“If you had only kept your focus bound
to my Heavenly words, you would have seen 80
that your great doubts I have already drowned
“as a small fishing boat may be taken
by the superior sea that it sails.
But, to expunge your concerns, which seem keen
“to convict me of dissent, I’ll avail 85
your understanding. If you are so versed
in good Aquinas’ writing, it’ll reveal
“the truth to you. Though Trajan was not nursed
under the tutelage of holy Christ,
Saint Gregory did pray and so reversed 90
“his death, to give him chance at second life.
Trajan, having been baptised in this latter,
was thus able to rise and in God thrive.
“Ripheus was virtuous, though he lacked myrrh,
and was thus baptized with God’s three graced virtues. 95
Thus there was no reason he’d be deterred.
“These men didn’t need the blessing of the pews,
they found their path to God without the cowl.
Do not fret, for the church is like the muse
“but for the common folk. For Satan prowls 100
on the faithless, and priests can light the way
to resist him seeking to disembowel
“the poor weak. So although the church does pave
the way for some, others do seek to forge
their own path to God, these are His own brave.” 105
At this point, though the friar did seemed urged
by his weak mind to question my just force
on this topic, my harsh gaze seemed to purge
him of this desire. Thus, he changed his course
as a weary traveller avoids a fright 110
on the road. Thus he asked: “Does God endorse
“churchly penance?” And I: “Yes, with his might.”
And he: “But still other penance is also
received?” I said: “He who rules would not smite
“Those who truly repent, and seek to know 115
our good Father through absolute just strength
will, whether by the church or by the road.
“They will be in His kingdom for a length
neither shorter nor longer than another.
For, just as a lost sheep may enter dense 120
“and savage woods and might need a father
to guide it back to the flock, so the lost
soul may also need churchly aide, yet other
“sheep may find the good flock and rise aloft
to great heights without help avoiding wolves.” 125
At this time the friar tried to accost
me on many contentious issues. False
were his beliefs and I, good reader, had
to set my sound intention to involve
my mind with his. After I had this sad 130
man corrected on many of his issues,
I had him convinced that I was not mad.
O reader, I hope you have heeded due
warning that I gave you in my account
of that high place your nature does strive to. 135
Let this teach you that some who would surmount
the highest point of my poem, though skilled
with matters of Earth, lack a good amount
of love and spirit. Their minds are but gilded,
intellects not truly open to God’s 140
understanding, and falsely do they build
unworthy rafts of bark to trail and plod
after my ship, which is not a pale farce.
But for those praying to see and be awed
by His magnificence, look to the stars. 145