(this is an excerpt from an essay by the poet Howard Nemerov called "THE
DREAM OF DANTE" and appeared c. 1980 in Prose magazine)
...it happened that I took children to a night game. But Dante's poem, for anyone
working with it closely, has the power of infecting a good many thoughts about things
which would seem quite remote from it, so that when...I saw on the electric scoreboard
a bright red Cardinal swooping up and down and across I thought:O dear, thats
the trouble, isn't it?...that Cross in the Heavens of Mars, the imperial Eagle
in the heaven of Jove, the ladder in the heaven of Saturn, all made up of
spirits who are lights (after you get past Justinian in Canto vii they no longer
have human faces)--we can actually do, or show these things. That scoreboard
could as readily flash out to us glowing crosses and ladders and eagles as it can that
cardinal or pitcher pouring golden beer...and what a vulgar production it is!
Surely poesy rules in the realm of the impossible because it is the impossible;
realization is ruin.
But a few nights after, taking the children to the Fourth of July fireworks and
seeing those wonderful sprayings and flowerings, those glowing showers of
embers slowly going out...I thought with a kind of stupid relief, Ah well, that's
more like it, the spirits on the cross and ladder come and go swiftly, like the
fireworks brilliant with heat as well as light, and with the continuousness of a musical
phrase, legato...only they don't go out.
...And, still thinking on cross and eagle and Jacob's ladder, I remembered two
quotations on this matter, though written three centuries apart.
"What a beautiful hemisphere the stars would have made if they had
been placed in rank and order;if they had all been disposed of in regular
figures...all finished and made up into one fair great composition
according to the rules of art and symmetry."
That is Bishop Burnet, as if he were introducing the eighteenth century.
But here is how the same thought occurs to George Santayana, introducing
"imagine the stars, undiminished in number, without losing any of their
astronomical significance and divine immutability, marshalled in geometric
patterns, say in a Latin cross with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces in
a scroll around them. The beauty of the illumination would be perhaps
increased, and its import, practical, religious, cosmic, would surely be a little plainer,
but where would be the subliminity of the spectacle? Irretrievably lost.' ''