Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"The Vision of the Virgin"

‘The Vision of the Virgin’

For his climactic Divine Comic strip
Illustrating Dante’s Paradiso
Botticelli wrote this title, then stopped
And left the vellum blank. It was as though

This is a piece from Ian Duhig’s collection The Lamas Hireling. The title poem in it won the Forward Best Single Poem prize for 2001. Admittedly, I first chose the piece here not because it was the best among the lot, but – sorry to say – it was one of the shortest. (There is yet another piece even shorter, unbelievably in 2 lines and with only 3 words!) However, delving through the lines, I am delighted to discover how complex and intricate, how synchronous, symmetrical and balanced, these four lines are, and how layered, too.

On the surface, the one stanza here seems to merely depict Botticelli attempting to draw out Dante’s Paradiso as a comic strip. Incidentally, Botticelli’s real name is Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, a Renaissance painter from 15th century Florentine. The Virgin of the title refers to, probably, one of his paintings of the Virgin Mary . . . or does it?

When I read this piece, I feel an insistent rhythm after the first line, of 5 beats. A beat is a stress marking a part of a word, so that you actually tend to read it louder or with more force.

The first line, essentially, only has, not 5 beats, but 4: cliMACtic, diVINE, COmic and STRIP. Only after reading the following two lines and finding 5 beats effecting rather regularly (perhaps not so, the last line) do I go back to see if I can read his and force – technically, promote - a beat upon it. So that the line now could go:

For HIS cliMACtic diVINE COmic STRIP

The rhythm has, essentially, a rising tone - fall-rise – at the start. The rest of the line following has a mixed tone, and the next two lines a falling tone. But the end of line 3 has more of a mix, particularly signaled by the comma.

ILluSTRAting DANte’s PAraDIso

BOTtiCELli WROTE this TItle, then STOPPED

The beginning of the last line has a rising rhythm, but the full-stop signals a change following this:

And LEFT the VELlum BLANK. It was as though

Alternatively, to sustain the 5-beat pattern, I can read in 2 beats into the last sentence fragment after the full-stop, just as I have promoted his to a beat. (I won’t tell which ones yet. Why don’t someone write me and see if he’s got them right?) But there is a reason why I should leave this last line with only 3 beats, missing 2. If that’s the case, then I should also leave the beat out of his in the first line:

For his cliMACtic diVINE COmic STRIP

If I do this, I find that the poem is now balanced, with three syllables without stresses or beats at the start, against 4 of the same at the end. When you read For his climatic, you’d sense or feel a whooshing climb up towards Divine. (Try and read as ‘foorrhiisscle…mack’) On the other end, the number and length of the vowels in It was as though gives one a sensation of falling into a void, of going into and through a void or opening; of being awestruck (by a vision?). And you’d notice this sentence just hangs, with no full-stop to indicate end of a sentence, as though the words just disappear away at the end.

There is a symmetry, felt in the last word on line 1 and on line 3. strip and stopped are not exactly half-rhymes, but their ending consonants, when you read the words, cause your lips to close, to meet, you to balk. Another one: the ‘o’ of Paradiso in line 2 and the ‘ou’ of though in the last line, so that both these make you part your lips in a little opened moue. The lips closing at end of line 1 and 3 contrasts against the lips opening at end of lines 2 and 4. If you take blank as the end of the sentence qua a sentence proper of the last line (as there is no full-stop at end of though) you can synch it to Paradiso: both have your lips parted, with blank drawing your lips back. There are some kind of interlaced balances and symmetry going on.

There are two layers of effects in the first line. ‘…strip/Illustrating…’ makes up a syntactic whole, so that the line is a run-on one. You’d read the end of the first line without stopping at strip, and read on to the next one, from Illustrating. However, for effect, you can pause ever so slightly at strip, giving the line an end-stopping effect. This is the same with stopped at the end of the 3rd line. But the run-on here is a weak one, so that you can also equally pause at stopped, for effect.

There are still more layers and technical effects in this poem. But this posting is going to get too long. So it suffices to say that what Duhig means to do with this poem is not just to tell us about Botticelli and his comic strip. He is showing us how he could take elements from a traditional, Renaissance metrical form, the pentameter, and meld them into free verse of sorts, by forging only 4 lines, instead of more (stopped and blank and the disappearing or hanging last line bear out this cutting off or baulking). Botticelli and Dante’s Paradiso are the tradition, and Comic strip is modernity or free verse.

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Blogger bibliobibuli said...

Well done, Leon. Such a thorough technical analysis of metre.

Me, I want only to enjoy the words. And I do! This tiny poem had me grinning broadly.

To talk about Boticelli's paintings as ... a Divine Comic strip ... such a nerve! And yet, who's to say it his work wasn't the Renaissance version of?

It's the ending, the incomplete sentence that I love most:

"It was as though" - what????

Wicked! Duhig isn't goint to give us the answers so we've got to make up our own.

Was it that he decided that he couldn't do his subject justice?

2:06 PM, April 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are YOU a HUman throboSCOpe!? hehe

4:08 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

The trailing last line stretches further still from the previous line. A last step down to the edge of a precipice:

"It was as though"

Stopping with a dead clap that does not linger in echoes because this is the end, nothing more beyond - nothing to bounce an echo.

Not even an ellipsis to count on to skip further a little more and hope to see just that bit further into the dark. There is no omission here, no gap to cross, nor a tease to prompt an action.

And you just stand there on your toes at the edge.

That's how I felt reading this poem.

Thank you.

8:35 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger thewailer said...

I was stopped dead in the track by the word 'though' and yet, the conclusive imagery is made boundless...I think I am too lyrical when it comes to poetry!

9:31 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Leon, your sheer attention to the little things astound me. Indeed, you are a 'fondler of details'.

Your take on play between the 'modern' and traditional aspect of this poem in both its poetic form and reference to Botticelli and comic strip is spot on. However, I hope you or one of the commentators here could supply more contextual information on the reference to Dante's Paradiso, to add further to the understanding of this poem.

I did a little digging, but couldn't quite find the sketch titled "The Vision of the Virgin" (there were others; Interestingly, the sketches would together be a form of comic strip for the Renaissance era). Probably as mentioned in this poem, it wasn't drawn at all...There is off course, the direct ref to Paradiso and indirect ref to The Divine Comedy, both of which I sadly haven't read.

Anyway, this is a really playful poem, and in some ways,'postmodern' (sorry for this overly cliched term).

11:52 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Backstory from the Guardian here.

It appears that the Divine Comic strip is exactly as you'd think: a series of panels for each canto of the Divine Comedy.

The Paradiso is the last book of the poem.

I found a collection of images here.

The 'Vision of the Virgin' may well be the drawings for Cantos 31 - 33, as this is the part where Dante sees the Virgin Mary in the Divine Comedy.

This is the drawing for Canto 32 of the Paradiso. Marienvision sounds like Vision of Mary to me. Unfortunately the drawings for Cantos 31 and 33 appear to be missing (index).

There is another interesting article here.

And a book for the bibliophiles :)

4:18 AM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

you did such a great job finding links, machinist ... and evertyhing began to make more sense after i'd read the guardian article

Art experts have compared the effect of the drawings together to an animated film ...

if Boticelli were alive today he's probably be a film maker ... or a cartoonist. we work with the media of our time.

maybe boticelli never painted the 'vision of the virgin' ... maybe it's the missing piece because

(I left that word hanging deliberately, okay?)

I bet Duhig wrote the poem after going to the Royal Academy Exhibition ... maybe he was wondering why this piece was missing!

Leon - love dreamer idiot's description of you as a fondler of details! (not that's poetic)... you are much more than i could ever be ... which is why i need your help so badly Leon with some poetry i am editing ... because i know you will see things i'll miss!

In all the analysis you wrote leon, this stands out for me:

He is showing us how he could take elements from a traditional, Renaissance metrical form, the pentameter, and meld them into free verse of sorts

How clever! I never would have seen that without it being pointed out to me.

And look what fun we've had with just four lines of poetry!

8:14 AM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Bibliobibuli - I actually enjoyed writing about that piece. At first I hadn't notice much details beyond the depicting of Botticelli and his drawing, until I literally took the poem apart and reconstructed it back.

Incidentally, if anyone has gone to my blog - leonwing.blogspot.com or leonwing.blogspot.com/2006/04/unveiling-botty-of-virgin.html - and then to here from a link, he would have had read a similar short piece there based on Duhig's beat scheme, etc, for this poem. (Imitation is the best form of flattery?)

Machinist - gosh I didn't know about the drawings, really. This certainly sheds more light on the poem.

Botticelli wouldn't have called his drawings a comic strip, but in a modern context one could, I guess.

Dreamer idiot - There might not be such a sketch called "The Vision of the Virgin". I figure 'The vision ...' might be Botticelli seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary? Machinist, would this be right, based on what you already found out about B's paintings and drawings.

Anna - what's a throboscope? Whatever it is, I'll take it, thanks.

Wailer - if you reacted like this to his poem, Duhig has done a good job.

9:00 AM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharon, nearly forget. I would love to help you with your poems.

9:01 AM, April 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A throboscope is a internal needle found in the upper left cranial lobe that oscillates when reading poetry...
According that the para-meters have been set deeply into one's brain! Just kidding! I am trying to emulate your verbiage...

10:06 AM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger Spot said...


i feel so bimbotic after trying to understand (and still failing) leon's write up on the 2nd reading.


i just like the "..." quality of the last line.

4:57 PM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Oh Spot, cheer up. Come back to this blog time and again. We're having some little tips soon for you and others on how to read poems - or for those in uni, how to scan them - and better still, how to write them.

Anna - Oh my, my 'verbiage'... I'm talking too much already, he he! Lucky I didn't pick a long poem, eh? or it'll be a thesis, ha ha.

I think I'll see if I can cut down the technicality for the next posting, and go for more interpretation. But for me, taking a poem apart is so much fun!!

5:20 PM, April 05, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

spot - the word bimbotic has entered my vocabulary now - thanks! ... yeah i felt like this too ..

but i find it interesting that different folks look at poetry in very different ways ...

i think that maybe we enjoy watching the puppet show and talking about the performance, and leon wants to go behind the scenes to all the wires and pulleys and levers and see how it's all done ...

i think you can do both ... but we shouldn't feel any less like poetry lovers because we want to do the former

but when i write poetry i need to know more about how it works

7:51 AM, April 06, 2006  
Blogger GK said...

Not knowing anything much about Botticelli nor Dante's Paradiso, I suspect I must be missing out on some parts of the meaning of the poem.

My reading however is that there's a lot of mischievous humour in this poem.

Botticelli has reached the grand finale. He is about to illustrate the Vision of the Virgin herself. And the vellum is blank ...

"It was as though ..."

the Virgin saw nothing?

No grand revelation; no holy vision; just ... nothing. A divine comedy, indeed. :)

1:06 PM, April 08, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Gilbert - Really, you don't need to know much about Botticelli or Dante's Paradiso to appreciate this poem by Duhig, who is merely using those two to work in a melding of past and present (or future).

Botticelli is not illustrating the Virgin, rather the Paradiso. The Virgin is not the one seeing something; it's B who has a vision of the Virgin.

Yes, there is a little humour here: the drawings are compared to a cartoon strip.

2:18 PM, April 08, 2006  
Blogger GK said...

Hmmm. Went googling to find out a little more about Dante's Paradiso.

Seems like the "vision of the virgin" that Botticelli is referring to is actually the vision which Saint Bernard asks the Virgin to bestow on Dante .....

So the nothingness which our poet alludes to may mean that Dante saw ... nothing?

Again, I don't know enough about Dante's Paradiso ... I can only guess what this is supposed to mean.

6:02 PM, April 08, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Gilbert - you might have got it right about Botticelli's reference to the vision. Duhig is not alluding to Dante envisoning nothing, but to B envisioning the virgin - that's what probably made B stop and leave his vellum blank.

Having said all that, however, we the reader must not always take a poem's lines too literally.

10:37 AM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger GK said...

I like my interpretation better. It's more mischevious, and certainly more in line with D's own portrayal of Botticelli as a comic strip artist.

It would be peculiar for Botticelli to paint so many pictures of Dante's Paradiso, then hit a complete blank for the last one.

The more satisfying (and amusing) interpretation for me is B's blank vellum is deliberate. The blank vellum IS his piece of artwork.

The humorous point that B is making is that after Dante has gone through all his exciting adventures in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Dante still ultimately learns nothing (alas for all the well-intentioned efforts of the spirit of his beloved Beatrice in teaching him to be a better human being).

1:31 PM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger GK said...

Just to elaborate a little further -

you said:

"Duhig is not alluding to Dante envisoning nothing, but to B envisioning the virgin -"

The reason I don't agree with this is that:

(a) the poem refers to the "climactic" part of the story, and it is indeed in the final, climactic part of Dante's Paradiso that the Virgin bestows the vision on Dante ;

(b) "The Vision of the Virgin" is the title of the poem, but as set out in the poem itself, it is also placed in quotation marks,

The Vision of the Virgin

For his climactic Divine Comic strip
Illustrating Dante’s Paradiso
Botticelli wrote this title, then stopped
And left the vellum blank. It was as though

... which to me means that it is also supposed to be the title of the artpiece (ie Duhig quoting B's title). Then if B were merely attempting (and failing) to envision the Virgin in his painting, his artpiece would simply have been entitled "The Virgin" and not "The Vision of the Virgin" (just as "Mona Lisa" is "Mona Lisa" and not "A Vision of Mona Lisa"; and "Starry Night" is "Starry Night", not "A Picture of a Starry Night"). In other words, B's intention was not to portray B's idea of what the Virgin looked like, but rather B's idea of what the vision which the Virgin bestowed on Dante was all about -

ie nothing at all.

1:48 PM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:46 PM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Gilbert, that's an interesting interpretation of the poem.

But while you say 'nothing', I say 'ineffable'. That is, the vision is indescribable. Perhaps even Luhig was at a loss for words :)

After all, it'll be a tragedy if Dante had gone through all that only to learn nothing.

3:47 PM, April 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'And left the vellum blank'. More than ineffable: would be struck and blinded by the pure white light of the vision...

9:04 PM, April 10, 2006  
Blogger GK said...

Yes, possibly. I guess the sure way to know is to read the finale of Dante's Paradiso.

1:41 PM, April 11, 2006  

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