England’s Epic Poet: James Sale and His New Work, ‘StairWell’

England’s Epic Poet: James Sale and His New Work, ‘StairWell’
"Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle in Hell," 1823, by Joseph Anton Koch after Asmus Jacob Carstens. Pen, ink, and watercolor on paper. Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Public Domain)

The Renaissance poet Philip Sidney considered the epic or “heroical” genre to be the “most accomplished kind of poetry.” What could possibly substantiate such a claim?

In his famous essay, “The Defense of Poesy,” he defined the epic hero as one who “stirs and instructs the mind” with moral doctrine, who “doth not only teach and move to a truth, but teacheth and moveth to the most high and excellent truth; who makes magnanimity and justice shine through all misty fearfulness and foggy desires.”

Few write epic poems these days, though, and novelists have tended to cast out the search for higher truth in favor of more materialistic themes. James Sale, who is a contributor to The Epoch Times, represents an exception to this rule. His new 3,700-line poem, “StairWell,” marks a return to the adventurous heroism of Homer, Milton, and Dante, which is at the heart of the European epic.
The mention of Dante has particular relevance, because like “The Divine Comedy,” Sale’s epic is also a spiritual journey. Dante and Virgil even show up as characters to guide him on his path.

An English Epic in Terza Rima

“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell,” 1861, by Gustave Doré. Oil on canvas. Brou Museum, France. (Public Domain)
“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell,” 1861, by Gustave Doré. Oil on canvas. Brou Museum, France. (Public Domain)

“StairWell” comprises the second volume in a projected trilogy called “The English Cantos.” In his first volume, “HellWard,” Sale chronicles his own real-life struggle with cancer as he takes us through the different (fictional) levels of a hospital ward—a substitute for the circles of Dante’s “Inferno.” The reader encounters condemned people who James knew, as well as public figures in recent intellectual and political history who posed a danger to the public good.

“StairWell” continues this journey by offering a modern psychological parallel to Dante’s Catholic vision of Purgatory. Each “canto” (chapter) represents a different step in a progression toward the doorway to heaven.

The poem is written in terza rima, consecutive groupings of three iambic pentameter lines that rhyme ABA, BCB, CDC, etc. This is a very difficult form to pull off in our rhyme-poor English language over the course of a long narrative—it has never, in fact, been successfully done (if one discounts Shelley’s unfinished “Triumph of Life”).

The first canto, “Ascent,” opens with the lines:

Some force, unknown before, but light as words Are light, when sung beside alpine moraines One sunny morning, clear, as those small birds

Their tweets ring for miles, echoing again Eternal joy in that sheer riff of life Which advertises nothing’s been in vain.

Notice how Sale manages the terza rima by sacrificing pure rhyme and using near rhyme (moraines/again/vain). This hybrid practice contributes to the story’s emotional complexity, while avoiding the repetition (and hence boredom) that continual perfect rhymes would necessitate in a long poem. The poem’s dominant emotional tone of pathos is also conveyed in these opening lines: the imagery of singing “beside alpine moraines” and the tweeting of birds to describe the light and clarity of the “force, unknown before.” The poet continues:

So, then, I felt; or as the day my wife Said yes and loneliness was all foregone And so in joining her no more the strife

That’s being two: forever we are one; And thinking that one word, One, caused me then To tremble: sure, another urged me on,

Awaiting with patience knowing no end At last the demon in me would be cast Out—to be finally home with all true men.

As the day the poet met his current wife gives way to a reminiscence on oneness, his hesitation in proceeding on his journey is expressed through a “trembling” syntactical complexity of colons, semicolons, and dashes. Sale’s style can be difficult to digest for those used to reading short, simple poems on Instagram, but the intellectual and emotional rewards exhibit all the richness of the best poets in the Western canon.

The Power of Loss and Redemption

"Penitent Magdalene" by an unknown 17th-century artist. Oil on canvas. Prado Museum, Madrid. (Public Domain)
"Penitent Magdalene" by an unknown 17th-century artist. Oil on canvas. Prado Museum, Madrid. (Public Domain)

As in the first volume, Sale meets people from private and public life in his ascent, flawed individuals who are caught between heaven and hell, but not beyond redemption. Classical, mythological, and biblical references abound. Sometimes the mythological figures represent themselves—Apollo, for instance. At other times, they are mixed with normal people to symbolize their character.

On the third giant step of the poet’s ascent, we encounter his ex-wife, bedecked in jewelry, who informs him that she has the Midas touch which turns flesh to gold—the thing she loves the most. She grips an amulet with an ivory “coffin figure,” representing their child who was never born. As the poet berates her for having an abortion, she begins to weep in repentance, and a fly emerges from her tear duct (representing the exorcism of Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, through the eye—the window of the soul). The fly then transforms:

The fly—no longer one—now took to wing, A butterfly so beautiful, so light, So graceful, its sight induced in me song …

James then throws his wife’s gold amulet into the lake, where:

I saw its shape take form, taking in air, Enlarging as if new breathing began— And in my heart of hearts I found a prayer,

A blessing: I was seeing my lost son, Whom she had killed, adrift, and in pursuit Of where his mother’s butterfly would land.

I waved—like some lost soul’s desperate salute; Perhaps his eyes were formed and he’d respond— Or lips cry, ‘Father’! But his lips were mute.

As his son disappears over the horizon, the poet finds it in his heart to forgive his wife. The scene is deeply moving and, though sad, also uplifting in a sense. This tragic confrontation leads both to a deeper appreciation for what the poet has lost and to his wife’s realization of her wrongdoing. The passage is a beautiful evocation of the reality of truth and goodness.

Tapping Into Tradition

Author James Sale holding his book "HellWard: The English Cantos Volume One" (2020). (Courtesy of James Sale)
Author James Sale holding his book "HellWard: The English Cantos Volume One" (2020). (Courtesy of James Sale)
Some might criticize Sale’s epic as being too derivative of Dante’s. It is important to note, though, that the emphasis on total creative originality is a modern phenomenon. One could just as well say that Virgil’s “Aeneid” is derivative of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” criticize Shakespeare for stealing most of his plots, or call Milton a hack because he retold the beginning of the book of Genesis.
Great literature exists within a tradition, and the greatest works are those which engage that tradition in the deepest and most thorough ways, often drawing on timeworn themes and subjects. The problem with originality is that when you strip away tradition—as our culture has—what is left beneath is just an empty shell. 

Sale, who has been writing poetry for 50 years, has poured a lifetime of learning and carefully honed linguistic skill into this poem. He deserves to be recognized as the grandmaster of high epic in our time.

‘StairWell’ By James Sale Independently published, Feb. 28, 2023 Paperback: 220 pages
Cover for James Sale's book "StairWell."
Cover for James Sale's book "StairWell."
Andrew Benson Brown is a Missouri-based poet, journalist, and writing coach. He is an editor at Bard Owl Publishing and Communications and the author of “Legends of Liberty,” an epic poem about the American Revolution. For more information, visit Apollogist.wordpress.com.
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