Terra Canto

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.

dante

Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), Dante and his poem
Fresco in the Dome of Florence

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.

Much harder.

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:

A

B

A

B

C

B

C

D

C

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.

Divine comedy

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

Leave a Reply