Jacob's Ladder in Modern Lyrical Poetry

Felix Schmelzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The notion “good is above, evil below,” a spatialization metaphor, may somehow be rooted within our cognitive structure, which can itself be regarded as a record of human life experience. The earth reminds us of our origin and creature-like existence, and, ultimately, of our death; it is the dust from which we arose and to which we return, whereas the stars of heaven, with their apparently unchanging light and movement, generate the idea of eternity and are therefore related by us to the divine. Given this anthropological dimension, it is of no surprise that the metaphor has unfolded itself in multiple ways throughout the history of literature. One of its oldest and most infl uential manifestations is Jacob’s ladder, such as is presented in Genesis 28, 10–13: “Viditque in somnis scalam stantem super terram, et cacumen illius tangens caelum: angelos quoque Dei ascendentes et descendentes per eam, et Dominum innixum scalae dicentem sibi: “Ego sum Dominus Deus Abraham patris tui, et Deus Isaac.” The attractiveness of these biblical words lies not only in the fact that angels, as divine messengers, climb down the ladder, but also in the implication that man may be able to leave his dark, material existence behind (or better, below) by using the same to ascend to God, waiting at the top. Apart from Jacob’s ladder, various schemes of mystical ascension have been developed by the Church Fathers and their successors. In spite of slight differences, mainly concerning the number of levels or stairs, they all share the same spatial orientation. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the idea of a stairway to God was closely related to cosmology, as seen in the Divina Commedia, for example, where the poet’s travel starts at the lowest point, in hell—imagined as the center of the earth—and ends at the highest heaven, the empyrean, which, according to Dante and his contemporaries’ visions of the universe, tops the nine celestial spheres. Surprising as it seems at fi rst sight, the archetypal image of Jacob’s ladder, in the sense of a structure-giving element, is still present in 19th and 20th century poetry, where several texts refer explicitly or implicitly to the idea of an ascension of man to his Creator. Nonetheless, compared to earlier literary expressions, this idea is referred to in a more complex manner. It can be reversed, for example, or even deprived of a clear orientation. In other words, God, or the divine, is no longer necessarily at the top but potentially at the bottom, or simultaneously top and bottom. The following briefl y outlines this (in the present author’s view) specifi cally modern spatial paradox on the basis of three representative examples, arranged chronologically: fi rst, Novalis’ Hymnen an die Nacht (1800), a series of poems in prose and verse which, turning downwards, sound out the depths of the night in order to make contact with God; second, Baudelaire’s Élévation (1857), a curious poem that imitates the traditional schemes of mystical ascension with the aim of dismantling their supposedly illusory character; third, T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton (1936), introduced by an aphorism of Heraclitus which is refl ected upon throughout the poem: “The way towards above and the way towards below are one and the same.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-306
StatePublished - 2017


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