This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the second of them Through the Gate, today I am posting the Third, Vexilla Regis.’
In this third reflection on on my pilgrim/reader’s journey through Dante’s Commedia, I come to the end of the Inferno and the wonderful moment of reversal/renewal when, having sunk to the lowest depths, the very centre of the earth’s gravity, they realise that if they can just keep going and not give up or give in at this point, then everything will be upended,they will pass the centre and be climbing again on the journey back to light, proving what a later mystic, John of the Cross wrote, that ‘the way down is the way up’.
One other thing I might note by way of background to my poem is that ‘Vexilla Regis‘, which means the Royal Banner or Standard is a wonderful early mediaeval hymn about the cross of Christ, the apparent tree of defeat, becoming truly the tree of victory, the flag that rallies every faint and falling Christian back to the battle, back to hope and triumph in their true Captain. In Hell Dante hears a hideous parody of this hymn applied to Satan, so in my own poem about recovery I take up the true version as my witness to the saving power of the cross.
If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.
I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the Title or the ‘play’ button
3 Vexilla Regis
3 Vexilla Regis
I hear His call, now help me to respond
My freeing muse, I need your presence here
For poetry alone moves me beyond
The known and over-known, beyond the sheer
Drop into darkness and the all-unknown
To the last limits and the true frontier,
Where Light and life dare to begin again.
Reason alone will never take me there,
The shaping spirit of imagination
Must also be my guide and bring me where
We pass the centre, turn the world around
And find the first steps of the hidden stair
That climbs out of these pits, far underground,
Against the stream of Lethe. Help me climb
Out of the depths that you have helped me sound.
Little by little, one step at a time
Towards the other side, the star-lit world
Where he has gone before and for all time
The world-tree’s steadfast roots are crossed and coiled
But on the tree of life He dies for me
Vexilla Regis sounds and all unfurled
The royal banners of the true and free
Stream out against the tempest and the fear
And summon me to all that I should be.
Up from that black and smothered atmosphere
I toil towards the light The worst is past
I hear the voice that called me, deep and clear
And let Love draw me into light at last.