On reading the Commedia 3; Vexilla Regis

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

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.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the Title or the ‘play’ button

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.

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2 Comments

Filed under imagination

2 responses to “On reading the Commedia 3; Vexilla Regis

  1. Beautiful Malcolm….”the worst is past”….could it be so?, for me at 60, after a life full of error and blinding foolishness?

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