Poetry Friday: My birthday and the Inferno

So another year has made its turn, and I come again to my birthday.  In recent years it hasn’t seemed much of a milestone—32 seems much like 33, which again is not so different from 34.  But facing 35 feels just a little different, as though I have to take age seriously now.  I don’t quite know why that is.  I joked earlier today that maybe it’s the implicit sense that I’ve lived out half of my “threescore years and ten”—the seventy year lifespan that the Psalmist (at least the author of Psalm 90) establishes as the norm for humanity.  But of course that’s silly in two senses—my demographics suggest a longer life than that (as do the long-lived ancestors I spring from), and then again no one is ever promised anything.  I’ve known too many people who never made it even this far to take any of the life ahead of me for granted.

It’s likely, I suppose, that fatherhood brings out at least some of this in me.  I see my little daughter grow and realize how much time truly is gone for me, how many leagues lie between the man I am now and the boy I was when I was her age.  And I can blame media, too—not the “mainstream media” we so often blame for our various -isms, ageism included, but a very specific collection of media usually called “the Up series“, a remarkable string of documentaries following a diverse array of Britons from the age of 7 (in “7 Up”), returning to them every 7 years for new interviews and to see how much they change or do not change.  The most recent film, out last year, I think, was “56 Up”.  Getting to know these people and then watching them age almost half a century over the course of eight films (all of which I watched for the first time over the course of the last month) has certainly brought me in touch with mortality and the part it plays in the human condition.  It’s been great, truthfully—very moving, very insightful, often inspiring and even funny.  But it also brings with it at least a tinge of melancholy, as well as spurring me to think about the passing of years in my own life.  35, as a multiple of 7, was one of their documentary years, and I find myself looking back at me at 7, 14, 21, and 28.  I wonder what I would say to a film-maker this year, and who I will be (and where, and why) in 7 more years.  It gives a person pause.

The last couple of years I’ve quoted from Dylan Thomas’s great “Poem on his Birthday“, a poem I dearly love, but it was for him at 34, and having reflected on it at 33 and at 34, I feel I am ready for the next poet-guide to take me onward a little farther into life.  Who wrote a great poem, then, about being 35?  One of the greatest poets, or so the ages have proclaimed, and so we’ll turn our attention to just the first 30 lines of his work.  That’s right, dear reader: it’s time for Dante’s Inferno.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

But when I reached the foot of a hill,
there where the valley ended
that had pierced my heart with fear,

looking up, I saw its shoulders
arrayed in the first light of the planet
that leads men straight, no matter what their road.

Then the fear that had endured
in the lake of my heart, all the night
I spent in such distress, was calmed.

And as one who, with laboring breath,
has escaped from the deep to the shore
turns and looks back at the perilous waters,

so my mind, still in flight,
turned back to look once more upon the pass
no mortal being ever left alive.

After I rested my wearied flesh a while,
I took my way again along the desert slope,
my firm foot always lower than the other.

I’m using Robert Hollander’s translation of the Inferno, which is available online at the Princeton Dante Project, but I’ve read at least pieces of many other translators over the years; Longfellow, Ciardi, Mandelbaum, Dorothy Sayers.  They all harrow and haunt in their own ways.  In these opening lines, Dante begins where I am now—“midway in the journey of our life”, as I already alluded to in this post.  He doesn’t say “I’m 35. Holy crap.”  But we know from references in the poem that it is set in the year 1300, a year in which Dante turned 35, and that combined with the Psalms reference makes at least many critics comfortable with this as a literal statement of his age.  So I identify with him from the first, although almost immediately I’m struck by what a crisis he’s been in—a crisis that I, thankfully, can’t see in my own life right now.

Dante metaphorically (or actually—take it how you like) finds himself in the woods—not the gentle forest of sunlit groves and well-trodden paths, but the deep and shadowed forest where no path runs straight and where fear makes its home.  We know from nursery rhymes what a powerful, elemental thing the forest is to the medieval mind, a place outside of civilization and therefore beyond safety or reason.  It is a place full of threats and anxieties.  You may wander in it for many days without finding a gentle face or a shelter to call home.  Wherever Dante is sitting when he writes these words, down there at the root of his mind he is lost, his skin and clothes torn by thorns and whipped by branches, and he does not know how to get out.  Yet Dante knows that he cannot leave out this part of the story—to be able to relate to us the joy that he would later find, he must begin in this place of fear and confusion.  All our lives are just that complicated—the bad and the good come to us and if we don’t see how, in some ways, they fit together, we’ll never understand the whole tale.

Dante has this sense that his life had been on the right trajectory before, that there was a “true way”, THE true way, in fact, and yet he got drowsy and woke up here.  Getting out of the forest is job #1, of course, but he recognizes that job #2 is going to be finding that right path again.  First things first, though.  He reaches the foot of a hill and suddenly he can see the sun—yes, that “planet that leads men straight”, since unlike the other “planets” (or “wanderers”) in the sky, the sun can reliably indicate the compass directions.  And suddenly he is calm again, deep in his heart where the fear had him as choppy and unstable as a windswept lake.  There’s something really familiar about that moment, when you suddenly get perspective and the stress falls off you.  It’s not always sunlight, of course—sometimes it’s the realization that a critical date on the calendar has passed, or the arrival of a friendly face at your door just when you needed it.  Something gets through to us and gives us perspective on the things that were about to swallow us up, and suddenly we see how small they are, how easily navigated around.

Dante tells us he felt like someone who had barely made it back to shore without drowning; he looks around himself in disbelief that somehow the darkness didn’t get him.  He’s worn out, though, exhausted by all this striving.  He’s willing to work up the slope now, and see what’s on the other side, but he does it by inches: he plants his foot and reaches up the slope tenderly with the other, testing the stability of the footing.  Once he gets his planted foot up and firm under him, up his other foot goes again.  This is a man barely ready for the second half of his life, and yet also a survivor, someone you can see will not be counted out until the last punch is thrown.  He may be reserving his strength, and cautious about the terrain, but he’s also not going to try and make it home without seeing over the top of this ridge in front of him.

It’s been nice for me to think about this Dante—not just the man who will quickly become a chronicler of the damned, a man we can reduce (if we are not careful) into being a mere transcriber of allegory, a hollow shell through which we perceive the sin and judgment of others.  It’s this Dante who will embark on that journey, a man who has faced the most terrifying places inside himself and come out on the other side.  Having learned that there is a light shining beyond all those shadows, and having learned some caution with his feet (they led him astray when he was drowsy, but now they’re firm underneath him), he’s the kind of man who’s ready to face the worst truths about humanity, including his own society.  You can see what Virgil is about to see in him.  I like thinking about 35 in this way—an age where experience may have beat out innocence, but where Dante and I are still young enough to learn and to seek out opportunities to be taught.  Dante’s path is a wondrous one; mine, perhaps a bit more mundane.  But we both have faced down forests in our time, and we both know what it feels like to be in desperate need of a little rest and recovery.

As I said, it’s not that I identify with this opening to the Inferno right now in my life, necessarily.  But a variety of things have put the Inferno on my mind, and I see that I can gain a lot from pondering them.  Much of life is not epic or cosmic in the sense of the journey Dante is about to take.  Most of life is that interplay of shadow and light, of effort and rest, that Dante has felt inside himself and knows is where the story must begin.  I hope I have my own stories to embark on this weekend, or if not now, then soon enough.  Dante was cautiously ready for an adventure, and I think I am too.


One comment on “Poetry Friday: My birthday and the Inferno

  1. missyrdh78 says:

    Thanks, James for another wonderful reflection. I just had a “9” birthday and so this was timely for me as well. Happy birthday and may God bless you with many more. -Missy

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