Robert Sheppard: Thinking About Dante

Thinking About Dante

lo Alighieri has got off au revoir to all that

Samuel Beckett

he yearns for the new, simply, not the
novel this or that, but the ‘new, now’
as he styles it. He tries to speak of truth
but nobody heeds, as though he’s
out of date, rather than out of patience
bridges collapse, tunnels
tunnel. He’s amazed at this maze
all the way to the pub, guzzling
until sundown and moonrise, turning
the thousand pages that cover the first 35
years of our hero, and peering at his piratical
portrait: that singular eye
and his single woman startle with their remote
beauty. Out in the territory, he’s wary
of young men with slavering death dogs
pulling at taut leads, of wingéd people
who flutter too close. He’s also aware
tree pollen is his biggest challenge
finding himself in the middle of a dark wood
he gags under the canopies, caught in the throat
there’s nothing going on in the world: nothing
going on in his writing. He doesn’t want
to write about the five happy harpies
jerking round the excited reclining woman
(and neither do they). Angels applaud
but guard their naked faces from eternal light
he remembers Chillerton Road swings
as a cold place, its ‘chill’ factor
in its very name. He remembers the rain
the Walkman playing Bud Powell, while
the child played in puddles and on swings
in his wild and uncoordinated way. In
his memory, it is always dusk – as
it could never always have been. He
sits in the pub thinking about Dante
his vision of the world. He decides to write
(but knows he won’t) eternal versions of
the opening triplet of La Commedia:
‘midway through the Black Forest Gateau
I threw up over you! Such things move
the moon and the stars and the sun!’
he looks at himself through his words
catches an eye between the letter-forms
what it has seen, what it has known
is quite distinct from what it says:
clutch the dry openings of deferred
ingratitude. His flesh-mask
slips. In its sunken slits
the spectral dream of the eyes is
ringed with wrinkled ridges. He faces
toads and cupids in equal measure. Like
a retro-mayor in an ancient shire, Dante denounces
transgender scarecrows on unicorn farms, as he
repopulates the cornices for ‘our’ times
he carries on his life in comic book form
neither funny nor graphic when viewed from
this sphere. Between frames an ideal ‘he’
slips into the world where the rest of us laugh

10th August 2021


Robert Sheppard has just completed the third book of his ‘English Strain’ project. The first two books are available: The English Strain from Shearsman; Bad Idea from Knives Forks and Spoons. These sets mainly transpose sonnets of the English Petrarchan tradition, while tracing ‘British Standards’, the title of book three, during the age of immiseration represented by Brexit and Covid. Dantes (Alighieri and Rossetti) narrowly missed being targetted. The Robert Sheppard Companion edited by James Byrne and Christopher Madden is a book of essays on his work, from Shearsman. He lives in Liverpool, and is Emeritus Professor at Edge Hill University. He blogs at


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