"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.