Paul Claudel and the Poetry of Praise

This past year marked the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the greatest of Italian poets and, in his Divine Comedy, the greatest poet of Christendom. Readers know best Dante’s intricate and scholastic depiction of Hell in Inferno, but this is Dante at his least original. A casual acquaintance with Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid suffices to show that Dante’s choice of Virgil for his guide through the netherworld was well advised; he follows Virgil as closely as possible. Sin, death, and destruction more generally were the familiar stuff of classical literature, where epic, tragedy, and history predominated.

Where Dante stands apart is not in the depths of Hell, however precisely he renders the darkness visible, but in the heights of Heaven, where he depicts the realms of the blessed as no poet ever had before. Classical philosophy, from Plato’s vision of the sunlight of the Good in The Republic onward, had given to the world an aesthetics of light. Undivided and indivisible light was the sensible analogy for the principle cause of reality as such in all its splendor. Christians found there the adequate symbol of God, whose divine simplicity shed its light on all things and caused them to be.

The philosophers and theologians of Christianity saw that the intellectual soul would find happiness only in contemplating the eternal God as the eye drinks with endless joy the beauty of light. But only Dante, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, would give epic expression to this theological aesthetics of light.

*

Over the thirty-three cantos of the Paradiso, Dante describes the realms of light with various and ever-increasing beauty. In the third heaven, for instance, he depicts one blessed soul as it speaks to him, departs to return to the dance of glory, and is replaced by another soul who has something to share. Dante writes, beginning with the soul’s words”

    “Above are mirrors—Thrones is what you call them—
and from them God in judgment shines on us;
and thus we think it right to say such things.”
   Here she was silent and appeared to me
to turn toward other things, reentering
the wheeling dance where she had been before.
   The other joy, already known to me
as precious, then appeared before my eyes
like a pure ruby struck by the sun’s rays.
   On high, joy is made manifest by brightness,
as, here on earth, by smiles. . .

Some readers tire of such uniform brilliance, which does not, to be sure, possess the same kinds of interest as the tortured, peculiar inventiveness found in Dante’s Hell. T.S. Eliot once wrote, in discussing Dante, that “We have (whether we know it or not) a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry.” When I revisit the Comedy, however, it is almost exclusively for the epic vision of glory it offers. It more than anything else in Dante seems ever ancient, ever new.

Little in modern literature can compare to such a vision of light and praise. This is in part the case, because literature, including poetry, is primarily dramatic, drama requires conflict, conflict requires consequences, and consequences must include suffering. Dante’s Paradiso skates by with an absolute minimum of conflict; most of the rest of our stories hinge upon it.

Many poets succeed in the poetry of praise in short poems, but very few give expression to the kind of sustained note of praise that we find in Dante. And fewer still capture the cosmic vision of light he gives us. For this reason, the French Catholic poet Paul Claudel stands out in the last century as Dante did in his.

Claudel converted to the Church on Christmas day, 1886, the beauty of Notre Dame in Paris occasioning the momentous change in his heart. From that moment, he became one of the finest modern religious poets and, as he described in a 1927 lecture, the religious poet can express as none other can the meaning of Creation, the drama of the soul as it comes to God and, “the creative theme par excellence,” praise through faith.

I was reminded of this in reading Jonathan Geltner’s new translation of Claudel’s most important poetic work, the Five Great Odes. From beginning to end, the poems depict Claudel as a recipient of inspiration and grace; his struggle is to do justice to the vision that God gives to His people.

**

The poetry of doubt, longing, and despair are nowhere to be found; the poetry of cosmic vision, light, praise is everywhere. Consider these lines from the second Ode:

So hail! world new to my eyes, world now total!
Entire creed of things visible and invisible,
   I accept you with a catholic heart.
Wherever I turn my head
I envision the immeasurable octave of creation.
For now the world opens itself to me again, and no matter
   how vast its span, my gaze sweeps it
   from one end to another.

            . . .

so from the greatest angel who looks upon you,
   to the gravel of forlorn roads, between
   every bound of creation,
nowhere is the unity broken, all things joined together
   seamless as the soul to the body;
the ineffable movement of the Seraphim
   ramifies among the nine orders of spirits, Dante’s heavens,
and finally down here on earth, as the wind that rises,
   Sower and Reaper!

Claudel’s odes are poems of praise that not only recall Dante’s medieval vision of Creator and Creation, but insist that this vision is available now, today, in the modern world, to each and every one of us. History may seem to carry everything off; cultural decline may make faith’s vision and praise seem impossible; but grace transcends history and penetrates it, lifts it up, and enables Claudel – and all of us – to praise as, in Claudel’s words, our fathers believed before us.

Dante and Claudel lived in very different historical circumstances, but the same Holy Spirit inspired them both, and engendered in them the same brilliant language of praise.

 

Images:

*Dante Alighieri by Domenico di Michelino, 1465 [Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy]

**Paul Claudel by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1919 [Museum of Fine Arts, Rouen, France]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Beyond Neutrality

+Michael Novak’s Four Great Gifts Italy Has Given America

James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.

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