Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 1–3 | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Heaven, Cantos 1–3

He moves all things. His glory penetrates
The universe, and here it shines the more
And there the less, and of these various states
The one where I was gets more light. I saw,
There in the Empyrean, things which he
Who comes back down from it has not the strength
Or knowledge to record, for memory
Can’t follow intellect through the same length
Of journey, as it goes deep to come near
10 What it desires. But all I could retain
As treasure in my mind will now appear
In this song. What’s imprinted in my brain
Of the Holy Kingdom will be written here,
Apollo, with your help. For this last burst
Of my long labour, make of me the flask
Of your power, which you always, from the first,
Required, from all who took on such a task,
Before you granted the loved laurel. One
Peak of Parnassus has sufficed thus far—
20 The Muses my sole help to get things done—
But now I need you, too, for now we are
On the threshold of the last arena. Come
Into my breast and breathe there as when you
Flayed Marsyas the fool when he was dumb
Enough to challenge you. If you could do
Enough for me so I might, Power Divine,
Show forth the shadow of the paradise
I have in mind, you’ll see me walk the line
To your elected tree, take the device
30 Of leaves my theme and you have helped me earn,
And put it on. So seldom has that crown
Been made for Caesar’s or a poet’s turn
At triumph, that the bough with the renown
Of Daphne surely gives Apollo joy
When anybody wants it. A great flame
Follows a little spark. Prayers may employ,
After my time, great words, because that same
Peak of Apollo, Cyrrha, meets the plea
Of poets’ wishes. The spring equinox
40 Is just one of the entrances we see
The sun come in at, but this one unlocks
A better course. Four circles join with three
Slant crosses, and the stars and tempers match
To stamp the world’s wax in the fruitful style
Of the world’s lantern. It undid the latch
And entered very near that point, so while
The morning happened there and evening here,
That hemisphere was white and this was dark,
And Beatrice turned left, and looked. For fear
50 Of blindness, never eagle risked that stark
Exposure of the eye to the full sun
As she did then; and, as the second ray,
The one reflected, leaves the primary one
At that point where they meet and climbs away
Just as a turning pilgrim might have done,
So from her action mine was made, infused
From her eyes into mine by how I thought,
And, so unlike the way our eyes are used
In mortal life, my glance, when it was caught,
60 Was held, fixed on the sun. Much is allowed
In that place, to our powers, which here is not,
By virtue of the fact that there, unbowed,
Man lived before he fell, and then forgot
What once his senses knew. I had not gazed
Long at that light, yet had gazed long enough
To see the cataract of sparks that blazed
Like iron that the fire makes boiling stuff,
When suddenly it seemed the day was joined
By day, as if He who could will it so
70 Had gestured, and a second sun was coined
To deck the sky. While upward from below
The eyes of Beatrice were fixed solely on
The eternal wheels, I had raised mine to her
Now that from my high object they were gone,
And at her aspect things weren’t what they were
Within me, as when Glaucus ate the herb
That had revived the fish, and he assumed
A sea god’s form. To pass beyond the curb
Of mere humanity is a step doomed
80 Not to be put in words: let it suffice
That the example should be put to him
Graced with that history. Not in a trice
Was man first formed. Dust made his every limb,
But it was breath that made the living soul.
Love, it was your breath. Were I just that part
Of me that you made last, and not the whole,
Love, heaven-ruling, you would know. Your heart
Of light raised me. Now your eternal wheel—
Constructed and set spinning by desire—
90 Held me intent by what it made me feel,
Its harmony. Your voices form a choir
In tune, and spread among the spheres. The new
Great sound and the great light soon kindled such
Keenness of longing as I never knew
Before, to seek the cause. To reach and touch
And calm the turmoil in my mind, she who
Saw me as I did, spoke before I could
Start asking. “Your false fancies make you dense.
Thus blinded, you cannot see as you would
100   Without them. You are not on earth. Your sense
Misleads you. Lightning, flying from its sphere
Between the earth and moon, can’t run as fast
As you regain your place, for you are near
To Heaven, which is your true land at last.”
With these brief words she smiled at me, my doubt
Might well have been dispelled, but soon I was
In yet another question swathed about,
And said “I was content just then, because
Freed from a wonder, but I wonder now
110   That I, a solid body, may ascend
Through realms of fire and thin air. Tell me how.”
She sighed with pity as if moved to bend
Her eyes on me just as a mother turns,
To her delirious child, a look that rues
The fate of all mankind, which never learns,
And said “All things that are, contain and use
Order among themselves. The universe,
Therefore, in structure, is to God alike
And in this primal part it must disburse—
120   While higher creatures watch it sort and strike—
That stamp of excellence, which never dies:
The very end for which the system’s made.
And in this order, all things exercise
Their nature, to express their place and grade
Nearer the sun or else, contrariwise,
Far off from it. They move to different ports
Across the sea of being, each with its
Own instinct. Entities of different sorts
Are all borne on, and one of them transmits
130   Fire to the moon—pale fire for mortal things.
And this one binds and unifies the earth.
Not just for creatures with fur, scales or wings
And no brain, the bow shoots, but those whose birth
Blessed them with force and intellect. The light
Of providence that regulates all this
Soothes with its glow the first step to the height,
Inside which the quick spinning emphasis
Of the First Impulse reaches its great speed,
And that way now, appointed to that place
140   We’re sent by the bowstring, as if its need
Is to attain the mark of joy and grace.
It’s true that often, as a shape does not
Accord with art’s intention, for a lack
Of workability in what it’s got
For substance, so sometimes the track
Of creatures fit to follow a good course
Can find their upward impulse turned aside,
As we might see a fire endowed with force
To climb, fall from the clouds, a shot gone wide,
150   And back to earth. False pleasure takes the blame.
If I am right, I vow that your ascent
Unfailingly to Heaven has the same
Reason within it for astonishment
As when the average mountain spills a stream
Falling from head to foot. You’d have more cause
For wonder if, without a mote or beam
Of hindrance, you had stayed below, all laws
Defied, as if a living flame might seem
To stay still. You could truly marvel, then.”
160   She turned her face up to the sky again.
You sailors in your little boats that trail
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
10 Muses will navigate me by the store
Of stars. You few that took this course of mine
In early times, to reach for angels’ bread
By which men live but can’t be satisfied
Down here, you might indeed have forged ahead
In your craft as the salt depths moved aside,
Ploughing the furrow till the waves again
Healed smooth. The glory-hungry Argonauts
Who crossed to Colchis were not so stunned when
They saw their Jason yoke the bulls. Your thoughts
20 Will make theirs seem unruffled. The innate
And everlasting thirst bore us away,
The thirst for Heaven in God’s form. In spate
We sped, almost as fast as one might say
The star-wheel turned, while Beatrice gazed on high,
And I on her, and in the time a bolt
That strikes a target takes to load and fly,
I now saw I had hurtled to a halt
When something marvellous drew my eyes from her
To it. From her, my thoughts could not be hid.
30 She turned the fairest eyes that ever were
To me, and said this, glad at what she did:
“To God, who brings us here to the first star,
The moon, direct your thanks.” It seemed to me
A cloud now covered us, if clouds there are
That can be dense yet still shine, solidly
Consistent, smooth, like star-struck diamonds.
And this eternal pearl now took us in,
As water will retain its seamless bonds
Pierced by a ray of light. How to begin?
40 If I were body (and down here we can’t
Believe a body might be drawn into
A body, or we would be what we aren’t)
This should accentuate our wish anew
Of climbing up to see that essence where
Our nature joins to God. There will be seen
All that we hold by faith. It will be there,
Not demonstrated, but, for what we mean
By knowing, known: known in itself. Which is
The primal truth that men believe. And I:
50 “My lady, how the credit is all His
That from the mortal world I reach the sky,
I say from my devoted, thankful heart.
But tell me why this body should be scarred
By dark marks, which from Earth are seen as part
Of Cain’s crown, made from thorns long, sharp and hard?”
She smiled awhile, then said “If judgement errs
In mortals, when the key of sense won’t fit
The lock, be not amazed if it occurs,
From now on, that your reason’s winged remit
60 Falls short of what the senses apprehend.
Just keep the shafts of wonder out of it.
Let them fly past, there’s nothing to defend.
All you need do is tell me what you think.”
And I: “Presumably that which might seem
Up here to be divine means sunrays sink
Into the rare. But from the dense they gleam
Reflected.” She: “Assuredly you’ll find
That your belief is deep in error drowned.
If only you admit into your mind
70 The following objections, which are sound.
The eighth sphere shows us many different lights:
The fixed stars, which, if they are judged by size,
Or quality, appear as different sights.
If all those, like the moon, should harmonise
Their luminosity from dense or sparse
Collections of material, then each
Would have one virtue, in a single class
Distributed, as qualities might reach
From more to less through equal on the scale.
80 But that’s absurd, for different virtues form
From principles, and your thought would entail
That only one of them provides the norm.
Again, if rarity should be the source
Of that obscurity you ask about,
The moon would either have, in parts, a course
Of emptiness right through it, or, without
Much difference from the way that lean and fat
Are portioned in a body, it would stack
The pages, in its volume, lying flat
90 One on the other: thin white and thick black.
But in the first case, at the sun’s eclipse
We’d see the light shine through the moon, as through
Rare stuff. The second case lives on the lips
For little longer, since in this way, too,
Your view is false. If rarity falls short
Of going right through, there must be a mark
Where density ensures the ray is caught
And thrown back, giving light instead of dark,
Just as a colour is sent back through glass
100   With hidden lead behind. You might contend
Those rays show dimmer when they have to pass
Up from the depths than those which must descend
Less deeply to encounter a hard place—
Experiment, however, will remove
Such an objection, and from your false case
Release you: for experiment must prove
Always to be the spring that feeds the streams
Of your art. Take three mirrors. First you set
Two the same distance from you, so it seems
110   A window lies between them where is met
The third one by your eyes from where it stands
Yet further off. Then have, behind your back,
A lamp set up by which those two demands
For light are satisfied. See how the track
Rebounds of each beam. Though the one that comes
The furthest may look smaller, you will see
It shines with equal brightness. What benumbs
Your mind, now finally of error free,
Is that the truth has not yet taken hold.
120   Think of the snow when smitten with warm rays,
Bare of its former colour and its cold:
I want to fill your bare mind with a blaze
Of living light that sparkles in your eyes.
Within the heaven of divine peace spins
The Primum Mobile, whose virtue ties
Together all the being that begins
And ends within it. The next heaven, hung
With many lights, and called the Starry Sphere,
Assigns that being severally among
130   Different existences, so they appear
Many and various but are contained
Within its single virtue. Seven more
Heavens exist, and all of them ordained
To deal out separate qualities they share
Within, to suit their ends and good effect.
These organs and the universe proceed,
As you see, grade by grade, in due respect
Receiving from above all that they need
To operate below. Observe well how
140   I pass thus to the truth you seek, just so
You may know how to ford the river now
Alone. I give you grounds for where to go.
Now, then, your final step: the Holy Wheels.
Their motion, and their virtues, must derive—
As from the leaping sparks and ringing peals
Of constant hammering the smiths contrive
Their iron work—from Blessed Movers. These
Are the angelic orders, and the realm
Made fair by all those flaring entities
150   Is shaped by the profound mind at the helm,
And of that stamp becomes itself the seal:
And as the soul in your dust is diffused
Through different body parts each built to deal
With different faculties diversely used,
So the intelligence unfolds its hoard,
Throughout the star-field to be multiplied,
Which, wheeling always in its one accord,
From different virtues forms divine alloy
With any precious body it makes quick,
160   And with which, as in you, it will enjoy
Deep bonds, designed to strengthen as they stick.
So, by the joyous nature when it springs,
The mingled virtue shines through like the flash
In our eyes when we think of joyful things.
And therefore the whole range of flame to ash
Dividing light from light, comes otherwise
From how you thought. Not how dense or how rare,
But how glad are the angels, gives our eyes
Our vision of the dark and bright up there—
170   Proof that such excellence rules everywhere.”
The sun which first had warmed my breast with love,
By proof and refutation had shown me
The truth’s fair face, and I raised—not above
The level needed if I wished to free
My mouth for speech—my head, just to confess
Myself corrected and assured. But then
A sight appeared that left me powerless,
Glued to it, so I couldn’t think again
Of what I had confessed: the words had fled.
10 It was as if through smooth, transparent glass,
Or else through clear, still water whose creek-bed
Is not so deep our faces fail to pass
Back up to us so faintly that a pearl
Set on a pallid brow is not more slow
To reach us from the image of a girl,
That I saw many faces, poised as though
Eager to speak. I then made a mistake
Like that which joined the man and spring, and lit
Tinder between them that brought love awake,
20 Except my error was the opposite:
Narcissus was more credulous than me.
I saw these faces and I took them for
Reflections, so I turned my eyes to see
Where they might really stand, and what I saw
Was nothing, so once more it came to be
That I looked straight into the brilliant light
Of my sweet guide, her holy eyes aglow
With her smile. She said “Do not doubt it right
That I smile at your childishness, for so
30 Reluctant is it still to set its foot
On truth, that it feels bound to turn you back
To emptiness. But these are real, all put
In this place for a failure, for their lack
Of loyalty to vows. So speak with them,
Hear and believe. A true light gives them peace,
But, simply by that function, must condemn
The peaceful ones to keep turned without cease
Their steps towards it.” I approached the shade
That most seemed keen to talk, and I said this,
40 Almost consumed by my will: “Spirit made
To know, in this eternal life of bliss,
The sweetness of its beams—a taste which must
Be tasted first before it is conceived—
It would be kind of you if you could just
Render my curiosity relieved
By telling me your name and of your fate.”
And she, with smiling eyes of eagerness:
“Our charity shuts no doors, bars no gate,
Against right Will, for our will can’t be less
50 Than His, who wills His whole court to be as
Himself. A virgin sister when I breathed,
I was—and you will find your memory has
A picture which, although now I am wreathed
With greater fairness, you will see is mine—
Piccarda Donati. I am put here
With all these other blessed ones, and in line
With their lot I, too, tarry in the sphere
Of smallest orbit and therefore least fast,
The slow sky of the moon. Our sentiments,
60 Which nothing sets ablaze save, first and last,
To please the Holy Ghost, find joy intense
In our conformity to His regime,
And this position which I occupy,
As low down on the scale as it might seem,
Is given us for failing to comply
Sufficiently in duty to our vows.”
And then I said to her: “Your wondrous face
That I see now, diversity endows
With inner light of an amazing grace
70 Divine beyond my knowledge, changing you
From what you were, but now there’s what you say
To help me recollect what I once knew.
Yet tell me: happy as you are to stay
In this sphere, do you not desire a post
Up higher, where you can see more, and feel
More loved yet?” With the others in that host
She smiled at this, and answered with such real
Gladness she seemed to burn in love’s first fire.
“Brother, our charity is calmed by will,
80 Willing just what we have, with no desire
For more. If we wished to be higher still,
Then our desire would fail to jibe with His
Will that appoints us here. Such, you will find,
Cannot hold in these circles, if it is
Necessity, clear to the thinking mind,
To be in charity, and if you well
Study its nature. No indeed, the gist
Itself of this blessed state is: we compel
Ourselves at all times wholly to exist
90 Within the will divine, so that our wills
Are thus themselves made one. Therefore our rank
From height to height throughout the realm instils
Pleasure in all of it, and so we thank
The King who wills us to His will. For in
His will is our peace. His will is the sea
Towards which all things move just to begin—
The souls it makes and all the progeny
Of Nature. For it is creative twice,
In both these ways.” She made it clear to me
100   That Heaven everywhere is paradise,
Although the Great Good’s favour does not rain
In one mode. As, when one food might suffice
Yet craving for another may remain,
We thank our stars and yet we are bereft—
As when that happens, so did I, with speech
And gesture, strive to hear the weft
And warp—the shuttle driven through to reach
Its goal—of what the vow was she had left
Neglected. “Perfect life and its reward,”
110   She said, “place in high Heaven great St. Clare,
Whose rule in your world binds with one accord
Those novices in robe and veil who swear
That until death they’ll always wake and sleep
With that Bridegroom who sanctions any vow
Made out of charity and aimed to keep
Him pleased. To follow her was why and how
I fled, a young girl, from the world, and wrapped
Her habit round me, dedicating all
My life to her chaste way. But I was trapped:
120   Men used to evil got in through the wall
Of good, and from the cloister I was torn—
And what my life was afterwards, God knows.
But see this other splendour here like dawn
Appearing to you on my right, who glows
With all the light of our sphere. She, too, was
A sister, and the same way lost her veil
And safety, but she never, just because
She’d seen the world triumph and custom fail,
Abjured the inward veil that soothed her heart.
130   This is the light of that great Constance, she
Who bore, when brought back from her life apart,
The third and last child with the pedigree
Of emperor, and the sire was that false start,
The second Swabian quick breeze to blow.”
She spoke thus, then began to sing the hymn
Ave Maria, and, still singing so,
Went down like something heavy growing dim
Into the depths. My sight went after her,
As far as it could plunge. Then it returned,
140   When it had lost her, back where my eyes were
Faced with the greater mark. And there she burned:
All I could see was Beatrice, nor could move
My gaze away, although it hurt my eyes
So much at first I feared that it might prove
Too hard to go on looking, or devise
Questions whose shyness she would not despise.