“Beata Beatrix,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Be a poet.”

These were (my director) Stephen Long’s first comments on the first draft of my first chapter of my dissertation (in fact the middle chapter). For all my difficult review of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s philosophical-theological complexities, for all my wrestling in foreign languages, for all my clarity, this was his complaint and command: you are a poet, so act like one; be a poet.

I could not have been more unhappy about it.

How is one to be a poet and a theologian? How is one to be figurative and clear? I feared that no one would understand me if I retreated to symbol and lyric. If I with precision painted polysemous images, if I with purpose elided quiet thoughts in a brushstroke, alluding without explaining. This is what poetry does, and what I could not do – or else I’d make no sense. I hated the thought of making no sense.

“Your whole argument is that poetry gives sense to us,” Long explained to me. “So show us. Do it.”

Or, as Danielle Nussberger (my other director), put it: “Perform a theo-poetic, Anne.”

Great. How?

I could not do it as the great Hans Urs von Balthasar did, or I would only end up imitating the befuddlement I was trying to resolve. His strange riddles of poetry and philosophy – these needed explaining. Yet I also needed to lend a sort of acting conviction to the explanation, give a certain embodiment to the idea. This was plain to all of us, though its execution remained unclear. We decided very early that I should include poetry of my own, but every one of us – directors and author together – expressed constant confusion over how my poetic works ought to be knitted into the dissertation chapters. Should I guide my reader into an interpretation, or was that a kind of violence committed against the art? (I, meanwhile, feared simple solipsism.) Should my poetry receive consistent attention, or should it stand as an enigmatic witness? Was there a middle ground? And how might the rest of my work imitate my poetic interpolations, or else risk schizophrenia? None of us really knew. The questions remained so difficult that some of these debates lasted into the last gasps of revision.

A theo-poetic is a hard thing, it turns out. A dangerous line to walk. Poetry risks becoming perfunctory, and prose risks confusion. Or if the poetry is too confusing, then the prose is too perfunctory. Christ could at worst receive expression as a fiction or as a math equation, and neither expression satisfies. So it is that when amalgamating genres – poetry and prose, figure and metaphysics, art and theology – one gambles against the high risk of leaving everyone from every original genre perplexed and angry, and thus confuting the fusion before it can run its course.

I did not know what to do, and by the end of the first draft of the entire work, I understood with painful clarity that I had not performed any theo-poetic at all. I had explained one – I had explained von Balthasar’s – but I had not accomplished one. If I could not do so, then von Balthasar’s brilliant poetic-theological marriage would remain something of a hallucination. It would prove itself the achievement of a singular genius, impossible to wider theology. A theo-poetic needed to be accomplished again in some way, and I had not done so. I knew I had not. The disjuncture between the elusiveness of my poems and the iron precision of my prose made my failure more obvious, as both emerged from the same brain and neither greeted one another in harmony. I felt the magnitude of my insufficiency, and it broke my heart. The whole thing glared at me with the empty eyes of a barren canvas: all neat and clean and wanting.

I took a break from the dissertation, exhausted and discomfited, and I with that broken heart opened the pages of Dante’s Divine Comedy. To this day, I do not know why I sought Dante except by a strange act of Providence. I could posit that I by instinct sensed that Dante’s broken heart could respond to mine. I could argue that I was finally ready enough to understand. These are only partial explanations, however. Divine Comedy was still near the bottom of my list of “must-reads.” I had never much liked the thing, perceiving it as little else but a turgid explication of human sin. Dante was all fire and woe set to rhyme. I had never survived past the second Canto in previous tries, and I had no use for the dead Italian poet.

Then I read him. I actually read him.

And his poetry became the source of my theo-poetic.

In a lyrical, symbolic way, Beatrice is the key to my dissertation. I mean that quite seriously: Beatrice, Dante’s masterful poetic figuration, is the cipher to my work. How was I to be a poet-theologian? By imitating one of the greatest poet-theologians this side of King David. I had to be dumb enough to try, and I had to be smart enough to follow someone else’s wisdom. So the first words that appear in my dissertation are Beatrice’s:

Ond’ella a me: “Per entro I mie’ disiri,
che ti menavano ad amar lo bene
di là dal qual non è a che s’aspiri,

quai fossi attraversati o quai catene
trovasti, per che del passare innanzi
dovessiti così sogliar la spene?”

– Beatrice to Dante, Divina Commedia, Purgatorio XXXI 22-27

The excerpt rests there untranslated, a mystery unless one bothers with the effort of looking up an English version or of muddling through one’s own translation. I signaled the key to my dissertation, but in a double obscurity: the obscurity of poetry and of translation. I began with everything exposed, and yet with everything hidden. This, it seemed to me, is what poetry does. This seemed to be where my performance should begin.

I will take this opportunity now to unveil something of my performance. My own translation of the above stanzas is as follows:

Then she said to me: in the desire (disiri) for me
that should have led you to love the good (amar lo bene)
beyond which there is nothing to aspire (aspiri),

what trenches (fossi) crossed your way, or what chains (catene)
did you find that caused you to leave behind
your hope (spene) for moving forward?

These lines indicate from the outset what my dominating themes would be: the art of poetry, the pain of despair, the place of hope, loving that beyond which there is nothing – and interpretation. The entire dissertation is an interpretation of von Balthasar’s works. It is also an interpretation of his beloved poets, of his beloved philosophies and philosophers. And it is an interpretation of Dante. In the dissertation, I speak constantly with Dante, beneath the surface of each chapter. Poet to poet. I admit this from the beginning, yet without saying so. A theologian would say so; a poet would not – a poet would allude.

Thus I alluded almost constantly, yet not in such a way as to keep secrets from my reader. This last is what a poet might do, but something that I never could do. This is where I consistently broke from the art: I implied and yet I also clarified. I showed the way poetry’s implications helped to clarify, and how clarity led the way back to poetry. Ambiguity and precision: these were my twin methods, brought together at the crossways of von Balthasar’s theo-poetic.

My first allusion – a reference to Beatrice as I adopted the voice of Dante – opened a door. Beatrice’s question to Dante is my question to myself, and to the young von Balthasar. What prevents us from trusting meaning? How have we lost hope for beauty? For happiness? To put it in Dante’s terms, how have we lost Beatrice? She herself asks the poet why he has lost his way, and her question bears on more than one loss. The name “Beatrice” is a constant wordplay: her name refers not only to herself, but also to “beatitude” (beatitudo), to eternal happiness with God. Dante, you see, has lost Beatrice. Not only has he lost the girl – he’s also lost beatitude. When we meet him at the dark opening of Inferno, we meet him as a man eternally lost.

We are also lost.

The dissertation begins with loss. It begins with von Balthasar’s youthful optimism for beauty and the tearful embitterment of that optimism in the face of pre-war Germany and the Second World War. We witness the philosophical orphaning of Beauty from her sisters (the True, the Good, the One), and the resultant impoverishment not only of philosophy but also of theology. This is the story that von Balthasar tells us in the introduction to Glory of the Lord. This is the sorrow he is famous for addressing. I detail his response in its poetic shape.

Poets suffer a most horrible loss when Beauty is orphaned. Culture itself becomes unhinged, and poets – like human seismographs – record the destructive rupture. Their poetry suffers as they suffer. Dante’s suffering thus stood as a cipher for the suffering of art itself, a suffering bound to the high archways of metaphysics, and I began to shape my own art according to his cipher. Dante had lost Beatrice, and – lyrically – so had I. (So had we all.)

This tactic of mine was as much existential as it was methodological. Poets willingly adopt the voices of other poets in order to express themselves. Allusion and echo serve as the harmonic keys to works of poetry. And I, though unable to slip through various unannounced masks, could at least take up Dante’s founding disposition and bear it through the length of my work. In the Comedy, Dante suffers into the arms hope – into the arms of Beatrice – since hope requires sacrifice so severe that it is first felt as pain before it is recognized as what it really is, which is freedom. So I suffered resonantly, unveiling the tragic and beautiful face of the poet Rilke before explicitly discussing Dante, then sacrificing my own work on the bare altar of analysis. Hopkins appeared on the horizon as the poetic unity of all three: Rilke’s sorrow, Dante’s daring, my alchemized stanzas. The grandeur and gravity of Hopkins’s shipwreck poems acknowledged and overcame the despair over Beauty’s orphaning that threatened to upend the dissertation.

Through these four, woven together by the form of von Balthasar’s thought, I taught my reader sorrow, then hope. The loss of metaphysics is also the loss of art. This was von Balthasar’s great insight, and I bent my every power to revealing its contours. We had to feel his tragedy, and we had to fight with him for hope. I became like Dante, and von Balthasar was my Virgil, leading the way through Hell.

We struggled for the sake of finding Beatrice again – of finding Beauty, finding Beatitude. The key to the poet-theologian is to permit both arts to be driven by the same desire, the desire for Beatitude. This preserves each art as it is, and transfigures both. So Beatrice was the key. Beatitude was the key. Eyes fixed forward on eternal hope – this was the key to staring tragedy in the face, and to resist being overcome by it.

I do not know whether I was poet enough, nor theologian. I know that Dante was, and von Balthasar with him. So look beneath the surface for my dialogue with Dante. It’s there, and von Balthasar is behind it.

If you have a subscription to ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database, you can find my dissertation there, and search for its title: Theo-Poetics: Figure and Metaphysics in the Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For a foray into von Balthasar’s theo-poetics, I’d recommend either Heart of the World (for something highly literary) or Glory of the Lord I (for his greatest synthesis of theology and beauty). A nice English edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy can be found in the Penguin Classics series.