Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Five Quintets
by micheal o’siadhail
baylor, 381 pages, $34.95

Sartre famously wrote that “hell is other people,” but for the poet Micheal O’Siadhail, hell is a highly specific group of other people. Among the damned are Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, and—you guessed it—a certain existentialist Frenchman, all of whom are punished for their role in launching modernity. But this hellscape is part of a larger project for O’Siadhail, a means of puzzling over the question, “How do we describe the contemporary world?” His answer is The Five Quintets, a poem spanning 400 years of intellectual history. Mirroring Dante’s The Divine Comedy, O’Siadhail presents readers with a summation of the modern period, a Who’s Who in verse of the ways and whys that led to our particular moment in history. 

Born into a Dublin family in 1947, O’Siadhail attended Clongowes Wood College (like his countryman James Joyce), studied at Trinity College Dublin, and ultimately took up life as an academic—a linguist—at Trinity College and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, accepting lectureships at Yale and Harvard before resigning his professorship in 1987 to work full-time on poetry. O’Siadhail’s deep, abiding love of words is evident not only in his written verse, but in the spirited way he delivers readings. He winds himself up and draws in breath, as if preparing to sing. Watching him, one feels the force of Robert Pinsky’s observation that “we sing all day to one another, when we speak.”

The Five Quintets is a lyrically complex work: It is composed of both classic and new forms, woven intricately. The first quintet, “Making,” begins the collection with saikus: a blend of the most classic forms from East and West, haiku and sonnet. Zaiku, a homophone of O’Siadhail’s saiku, translates to “craftsmanship” in Japanese. This is fitting, as the quintet depicts a cortege of craftsmen who speak with the poet to deliver a reckoning of the arts. The remaining quintets address the disciplines of economics (“Dealing”), politics (“Steering”), science (“Finding”), and philosophy and theology (“Meaning”). The second and third are written in forms devised by the poet, the fourth is in iambic pentameter, and the fifth is written—and written well—in Dante’s form: terza rima.

Dante’s tripartite journey through hell and purgatory to heaven isn’t enough for O’Siadhail. Each quintet includes five stages, with two preceding hell—one for “transitional figures who introduce modernity” (Cervantes, Martin Luther) and one for “those who unwittingly begin the turn” toward hell (Charles B­audelaire, Immanuel Kant). The actions and philosophies of these figures bring us to the “nadir of modernity”—O’Siadhail’s hell, from which we then progress to purgatory and heaven.

It is of course now countercultural to suggest that hell is populated, but O’Siadhail exhibits sympathy even for the figures he poetically ­punishes. He pities Wagner, saying, “your worn outsider’s face / Demands the fame for which through life you fight; / Your exiled loner years will leave their trace.” But he does not shy from judgment:

Blond Siegfried, hero for a blonder race, 
Can murder Nibelung Mime for his ring.
Der Führer stows your Tristan in his sack. 
Your phobias will scar our human face.

Those who attempted to escape the darkness of modern thought but did not ultimately succeed are housed in his imagined visions of purgatory. O’Siadhail parleys here with ­Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. The last section of each quintet ­represents a glimpse of paradise wherein the poet converses with his chosen saints—Dante himself, as well as others, including Dietrich ­Bonhoeffer and Willa Cather—gesturing toward our collective future. Each conversation is linked to the next by carefully crafted interlocking poetic forms, a ceaseless tumbling forth of history.

At the poem’s heart is an argument against the individualism that consigns so many of O’Siadhail’s characters to hell. The figures present in the poem could not have impressed themselves upon history without the influence of those who preceded them. Kant’s first phrases—“‘I’m still digging deep / to find . . . room where God can fit our reason’s leap’”—stem directly from Hume’s “‘Morality’s no godlike given plan / and from what is we can’t derive what ought / to be; our morals are all made by man.’”

O’Siadhail weaves language from these figures throughout the poem, the finest instance coming from the poet’s exchange with John Donne, who answers O’Siadhail with a variation on Holy Sonnet XIV:

For all our likeness, so much to contrast—
I bless your Dantean sweep of humankind.
Three-personed God is battering you to see
What was and is now shaping what’s to be.

And it is Beatrice, in fact, appearing in the final quintet, who expresses most fully the poet’s critique of our modern blindness:

“You mortals down below can fail to see
how marvels coded in the universe
reflect the face of God’s infinity.
Too graceless, too constrained, you still immerse
yourselves in steps and miss out on the dance—
the scientists and poets don’t converse

or celebrate each quantum of advance,
discovering a heaven’s cameo 
in God, the gambler’s mix of love and chance.”

O’Siadhail’s love of language is rivalled only by his fascination with jazz. He views conversation as improvisation, jazz his muse and guide. His Collected Poems contains forty references to the improvisational art form, and he notes elsewhere that “Creation is always some kind of improvisation. So, in a manner of speaking, creation is itself jazz.” He opens The Five Quintets with a beseeching epigraph to Madam Jazz, the spirit of Creation:

Be with me, Madam Jazz, I urge you now,
Riff in me so I can conjure how
You breathe in us more than we dare allow.
In words and hues and tones, please, Madam, blow,
Play in me the grace I need to know,
How in your complex glory we let go.

For the most part, his muse complies, but there are occasional slips. This is understandable. A book-length poem modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy and T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets is an ambitious project, and the strain was bound to show. For all his verbal brio, O’Siadhail occasionally gets lost among a dense, showy concentration of “–isms.” Yet we are not left without that which Eliot’s project lacked: what O’Siadhail calls “the joy and let-go of an imagined heaven.” The poet’s hope of heavenly abundance pulls us forward into the dance of unfolding time, “‘embracing all the wonders we’ve amassed / with gratitude but also, in the light / of what we’ve lost or thought we had surpassed,’” we are armed with the “‘depth and breadth of view / that lets the future in our now unwind.’”

Moriah Speciale is a junior fellow at First Things.

Photo courtesy of Julia Hembree Smith.