Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 10–12 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 10–12

As God looked on His son, the Word, with all
The power of Love that both of them exhale,
He, three in one, first and ineffable,
Created everything, fit without fail,
That turns in space and in the mind, and so
No one who looks upon it can but taste
His presence in whatever we can know.
Therefore look up to where the wheels are placed
Aloft, reader. Lift up your eyes with mine
10 And aim at that point where the sun and moon
And planets cross the equatorial line
There in the stars. Thus you’ll enjoy the boon
Of taking pleasure in your Master’s art,
Whose eyes are fixed upon it endlessly,
So much He loves that movement in the heart
Of one wheel through another, while we see
The day turn one way, and the way the year
Turns in the other. See the branching out,
Obliquely, of the circle where appear
20 Planets that answer, as they move about,
The wishes of the world. And if their track
Were not askew, much virtue would be vain
In Heaven, for just let the Zodiac
Be more, or less, divergent from the plane
It turns in—that which governs its straight course—
And, as the virtue there, so would we lose
Potential here, a falling-off of force
In the order of the world, both low and high.
Stay at your bench now, reader, and think through
30 The first taste that I’ve given you to try.
You’ll tire before it stops delighting you.
The dish set down, now you must eat alone,
For I’ve been made scribe of a theme that bends
Towards its telling all the care I own.
Measuring everything that starts and ends
With light, and stamping on the world the worth
Of Heaven, nature’s greatest minister,
The sun, conjoined with where spring has its birth,
As I have noted, wheeled through dawns that were
40 Early each time, the spiral of its drift
Towards the summer and its lengthened stay,
And I was there but didn’t see the shift
Of its position more than when we say
We have a new thought just before the thought
Appears in our minds. Beatrice is the one
Who leads this instantaneous transport
From good to better so the thing is done
In no time. How they must have burned so bright
Just in themselves, the ones inside the sun,
50 Distinguished not by colour but by light!
If I had practice, genius and skill
To conjure in the measure of that sight,
My telling would be insufficient still
To give the picture through the power of speech.
We must believe, and long for it, and should
Our poor imaginations fail to reach
Such heights, it is no shame. As if they could!
For no light like the sun was ever seen
By human eye. Thus they were shining there,
60 The fourth family, of all those who had been
Set on their course by this realm of His care,
The Father on the heights, who satisfies
The theologians and the learned ones,
By showing them the way He breathes, and ties
Three kinds of breath together, His, the Son’s
And Holy Ghost’s. Then Beatrice: “Praise and prize
The sun that lights the angels, our great Lord,
Who, by His grace, has raised you up to see
His radiance.” No heart had ever soared
70 To give itself to God as speedily
As mine at these words, with its whole consent
And all its love so fixed on Him, that she
Who spoke was blotted out. She was content
To be forgotten, and indeed she smiled:
Smiled with such splendour that her glance dissolved
My mind’s absorption, so the thoughts compiled
Within it all became far less involved,
Dividing into many subjects. I
Saw many brilliant flashing lights converge
80 On us, the point they were attracted by.
They formed a crown, from which we heard emerge
Voices yet sweeter than their aspect shone.
Sometimes we see the moon, Diana, shine
Yet brighter for the girdle she has on:
That soft and shimmering halo is the sign
The air is charged with water. In the court
Of Heaven I’ve returned from, many jewels
Are found, more beautiful than can be thought,
And past all price, and, by the kingdom’s rules,
90 There they must stay. This song was one of those—
The song of lights. He that does not take wing
To fly up there, it is as if he chose
To hear news from the dumb. The angels sing
To souls whose virtues lift them to the heights.
So, singing thus, three times these burning suns
Had swept around us, as, on starry nights,
Stars near the poles move faster, but these ones
To me seemed ladies, still held by the dance,
Who pause in silence, listening till they sense
100   The new strain, which will take them from their trance.
And so, in one of them, I heard commence
This speech: “The beam of grace that lights true love
And grows by loving, shines so multiplied
In you, that it has brought you here above
By that stair which nobody took a stride
Back down except to mount again. One who
Refused, from his jug, wine to quench your thirst,
Would know the obstacles the rivers do,
Restricted by the rocks they’d like to burst
110   And so resume their unimpeded flow
Towards the sea. You ask, what flowers bloom
Here in this garland whose love-glances glow
Around the lady by the powers of whom
You gain your strength for Heaven. You should know
That I am Thomas of Aquinas. He
Here on my right is Albert of Cologne,
My master. We were both lambs glad to be
Of that flock where, if none strays on its own,
It eats well of the true food, for the soul.
120   We were Dominicans. If, for the rest,
You’d have such facts, then follow round the whole
Wreath with your eyes as I say how it’s blessed
With famous names. Next comes the blazing smile
Of Gratian, he who well served both courts:
He worked for truth and went the extra mile
For justice, so for virtue of two sorts
He is in paradise. Next in our choir:
Peter of Lombardy, who gave the Church
All that he had. No tribute can rank higher
130   Than that. His four great books, where we may search
Successfully for truth in dogma, give
A new equivalent for those two coins
The widow gave God, and like them they live,
For everything’s the widow’s mite that joins
All we possess to heaven. Then there comes
The fifth light, the most lovely in the wreath,
A breath of such love that it still benumbs
The senses of those in the world beneath,
Who starve for news of it. It’s Solomon,
140   Given such wisdom in his lofty mind
The learned disputation still goes on
That he might have been saved, for of that kind
Of vision there’s been nothing since his rule.
And Dionysius is next in line,
A candle now, that burns in this bright school,
But down there in the flesh, when day was dim,
He still saw into what the angels are
And how they minister. And then, within
The next small light, smiles he who was by far
150   The advocate that best explained how sin
Grew less in Christian times, Orosius,
Whose treatise was such help to Augustine.
And if your mind’s eye scans those I discuss
From left to right as you hear what I mean,
You seek the eighth already. There he is,
Boethius. He rose from martyrdom
And exile to this peace. Who knows of his
Vision of goodness knows this light comes from
A body left below the Golden Roof,
160   For so the church in Pavia is now called
Where he was put to rest after the proof
Of how the world deceives, which saw him walled
Into the prison where he wrote his book
On how philosophy consoles. And then,
Beyond a little further, if you look,
You’ll see three more flames that were once three men.
There’s Bishop Isodore, he of Seville
And the Encyclopedia, and there is Bede
Of England and the sermons and the skill
170   In doctrine, and then comes the prior we read
For mysticism, Richard, who was born
In Scotland, but in Paris lived to prove
That contemplation leaves mere man forlorn,
For it is more than man. And then you move
Your eyes to me from that light there, which holds
Brabant’s Siger, so coiled and crushed in thought
He thought that death, to free him from thought’s folds,
Came slowly, but in Italy was taught,
Through treachery, that it can come too soon,
180   And all he’d talked of in the Street of Straw
In Paris, about how the opportune
Had no role in Creation, for the Law
Determined all: that doctrine played its part
If forming the high truth which turns dispute
Into a driving force. Then, with the art
By which a clock, both early and astute,
Tells us the Church, the Bride of Christ, will sing
Matins to its dear Bridegroom, that He may
Adore her, and one tiny part will bring
190   Another closer so the interplay
Triggers the actuation of a spring
Striking a chime to herald the new day
So sweetly the well-ordered spirit swells
With love, just so I saw the glorious wheel
Rotate, and, voice to voice, like peals of bells,
Give out the harmony no one can feel
Except there, where eternal joy is real.
Thick-witted mortal cares, how false and vain
Your earthbound reasoning, that keeps your wings
Beating in downward flight! One hoped to gain
Letters in law, one strove to do great things
In medicine, one followed the priesthood,
One set himself to rule, by craft or force,
One studied robbery, one found the good
In state affairs, one signed on for a course
In carnal knowledge—though he understood
10 He would need weary years to graduate—
And one did absolutely nothing. I,
Set free of all these lures, was in a state
Of grace with Beatrice high in the sky,
Received in glory. When each light returned
To where it was before, at the same place—
As if, upon its stand, a candle burned—
It stopped. Within its radiance, the face
Which had already spoken spoke once more,
Smiling and brighter yet. “As I reflect
20 Its beams, so in the Light Eternal I see your
Thoughts and their cause. They intersect
With my gaze. You have doubts, and want my words
Made plain and clear—so you can understand
On your own level—touching on the herds
Of sheep well fed, and on the other hand
My reference to no second Solomon.
Here, in both cases, we must make distinct
The meaning of each word we dwell upon:
Expression and significance are linked.
30 The Providence Divine that rules the course
Of all the human world with its decrees,
Strikes blind, with its unfathomable force,
All eyesight in creation, comes to please
Solely the understanding of that one
Who is the Bride of Him that cried aloud
In agony for what the blind had done.
With sacred blood He married her. Now, proud
In her position and her faithfulness
To Him, she finds her sure way to his side,
40 Her guides, two princes matched in their prowess:
The one, St. Francis, always sanctified
By his seraphic ardour, kept the watch
For faith. The other was St. Dominic,
Who always screwed his knowledge up a notch
And so, in splendour, shook the heretic
With his cherubic light. Two souls, one mind.
I, the Dominican, shall speak in praise
Of Francis, since the way those two combined
Means lauding either one will work both ways,
50 Commending each for working to one end.
There where Perugia feels the heat and cold,
And where poor Gualdo and Nocera bend
Their heads beneath the yoke that they must hold
With weary arms, for they receive less light,
There falls a fertile mountain slope between
Two waters. One comes streaming from the height
Where once Ubaldo’s guiding hand was seen.
The other’s the Topino. From that hill,
Where, at Assisi, steepness most gives way
60 To level ground, a sun—as this sun will
Rise sometimes from the Ganges—broke like day,
A dawn called Francis. Not ‘I rose’ but ‘East’
Would be a better name for that blessed place.
‘Ascesi’ is a small word. At the least,
We should invoke, to suit a splendid case,
The orient ‘ex alto.’ He had not
Yet risen far when first the earth began
To feel strong from his mighty virtue. What
Marked out his course was how, still a young man,
70 He crossed his father for a lady’s sake—
She to whom nobody unlocks the door
Of his free will, but only by mistake,
As he might do with death—and so, before
The bishop, and with his own father there,
He married her. Her name was Poverty,
And he gave her each day more loving care.
Bereft of her first husband, Jesus, she
Could only wait—unknown even by name,
More than eleven hundred years despised—
80 Without a suitor, loyal till he came.
Not even Amyclas could make her prised
When he stood up to Caesar in his fame,
A fisherman who faced that fearful voice
And only with her spirit; and the same
When she had so much courtesy to show
And courage, as Christ mounted on the cross,
While Mary, full of love, remained below,
But lest my speech should leave you at a loss
With metaphors, let’s say, in all I’ve said,
90 Francis and Poverty both loved as one,
Their harmony and happy glances led
To wonder among men, and sweet dreams spun
In thought, and holy pondering. And thus
It was, that Venerable Bernard first
Ran barefoot, at a speed which still to us
Seems quick enough, though he thought he was cursed
With slowness. And then, barefoot too, goes Giles,
Barefoot Sylvester, following the groom,
They’re so pleased with the bride. Onward for miles
100   That father, subject to a humble doom
It seemed, yet still a master, took the road,
He and his lady and their family tied
Together with a single cord. His code
For being just a merchant’s son was pride
Not cowardice, nor was his brow weighed down
For being subject to contempt and scorn,
As if a circus act had come to town.
Instead, as if to royal purple born,
He showed his colours to Pope Innocent,
110   And from that firm resolve came the first seal
Upon his order. And so on he went,
The convoy of his brothers at his heel
Increasing always, so their life was sung
Better by heaven’s glory than my voice:
The angels are a choir, and I one tongue.
And so the shepherd who had made his choice
For owning nothing, wore a crown again.
Honorius bestowed it, as envoy
Of the eternal sprit. And then, when,
120   Thirsting for martyrdom, for him a joy,
He’d preached of Christ and his devoted men
In the palace of the Sultan, greatly proud,
And found the Saracens had not begun
To be ripe for conversion, he, unbowed,
But seeing that it could not serve the turn
To stay, went back to where his homeland yields
A surer harvest. There he came to earn—
High on a crag arising from the fields
Between the Tiber and the Arno—his
130   Last seal, received from Christ—and all who know
What Christ’s wounds were will know what that seal is—
And for two years his body was marked so,
Until the time came for his great reward
When God, who destined him for so much good,
Raised him at last to heights that would accord
With how he’d kept as lowly as he could.
And to his brothers, as his rightful heirs,
He gave the keeping of his lady dear
And bade them love her and soothe all her cares
140   So she might never more have cause to fear
That they might not be faithful, and then, from
Her bosom his great soul chose to take wing
On his returning flight to its kingdom,
Because bare earth, bereft of everything,
Was all the pomp of his bier. Ponder now
What kind of man was this man’s fit ally
To keep the bark of Peter’s questing prow
Rightly directed when the seas were high,
And such was Dominic, our patriarch:
150   Meaning his followers, you may perceive,
All carry merchandise of goodly mark
If they obey him. But you must believe
His flock has grown so greedy for new food—
Positions, honours, dignities and such
Distractions—that they’re by themselves pursued
To scatter in wild pastures, out of touch
With their first shepherd, and the more footloose
They wander from his guidance, the less milk
They bring back to the fold. So they’re no use,
160   And those that stay close are the fearful ilk
Who just seek safety, and get little stuff
To suit their cowls. If now my words are not
Obscure, and you have listened long enough
So there is something you have not forgot,
You will be satisfied in part, and see
The way the plant is wasted, and what’s meant
By that correction in the homily:
‘Where we eat well’ was how the first words went,
But ‘If we do not stray’ spells discontent.”
The moment the blest flame said its last word,
The holy millstone once again began
To turn, and from where that last word was heard
The ring of light, according to its plan
Of circularity, was turning yet,
Its course unfinished, when another one
Just like it formed around it, so they met
Each other’s match in how the thing was done:
All movements mirrored, each song echoed song—
10 Songs which our muses and our sirens here
On earth, though they should play however long
On their sweet pipes, could never quite come near
With their reflection of a splendour. When
Two rainbows, colourful in parallel,
Curve through thin cloud, the inner one again
Born in the outer—Juno bends to tell
Her handmaid Iris what to do—the voice
Of Echo lives again, the nymph whom love
For her Narcissus left without a choice
20 Except to fade, as the bright sun above
Devours all vapours. People here presage
The world, because of God and Noah’s pact,
Will not be flooded in a later age
As once it was, and so we saw, in fact,
Those two wreaths of eternal roses turn
Around us, and the way the one within
Induced the outer one to sing and burn
At its command. Then all the joyous din
Of that great dancing festival, its flame
30 And song, its play of light with light,
Its grace, stopped all together at the same
Moment, with one accord. Our human sight
Works just that way, whenever both our eyes
Moved by one impulse, must together close
And open. But then one new light gave rise
To such a voice that, as the needle shows
The pathway to the star, I turned to it.
“The love,” it said, “that makes us beautiful
Draws me to hail another master, fit
40 To praise, since in his name we have heard all
The good things said about my leader. Let
Great Dominic be lauded now just as
Francis has been, for both, let’s not forget,
Fought for one end. Each sun of glory has
A right to shine, in one great blaze well met.
Christ’s army, the Church militant, which cost
So dear to rearm, slowly moved, and few
And full of doubt, and looking next to lost,
Behind their standard. Then the emperor who
50 Forever reigns on high provided for
His soldiers in their peril—not from their
Deserving of his helping hand, but more
From the unbounded mercy of his care—
And, as we said, two heroes He assigned
His Bride, and they inspired, by word and deed,
His scattered troops. And where we look to find
Sweet Zephyr rising to breathe on the seed
And spread new leaves in Europe by which she
Sees herself clothed again, there in the west,
60 Not far inland from where the waves can be
Heard beating behind which the sun will rest
In summer from his long trajectory
And hide from men, lies favoured, in Castile,
The town of Calaruega, by the shield
Protected where we see one lion kneel
As subject, and the other rule the field.
And there the Christian faith’s most faithful man,
The holy athlete gracious to his own
And cruel to foes, was born. His mind began,
70 As soon as formed, to show how, all alone,
It had such power that, in his mother’s womb,
It made a prophet of her, so she dreamed
About a dog let loose in a dark room,
And, in its mouth, a hot torch that redeemed.
And when the sacred nuptials between
Him and the faith before the holy font
Were signed and sealed, and each of them had been
Dowered by the other with all both could want
Of being saved, his godmother, who gave
80 Assent for him, saw glowing in her sleep
A star set in his brow, which was the brave
Symbol of what would spring from him, and keep
On springing from his heirs, a marvellous fruit,
And, that his name might signal what he was,
A spirit put the Lord’s name at the root
Of his name, Dominic, spelt thus because
The form, possessive, showed he was possessed
Completely by his God. Of him I speak
As of the labourer Christ thought the best
90 To help Him in that Garden where we seek
Eternity on earth, our Holy Church.
Herald he seemed indeed, and of the house
Of Christ himself, for if today we search
Among his actions, all of them espouse
Christ’s love, even the first, which has the ring
Of Christ’s first counsel, which was ‘First seek ye
God’s kingdom.’ And there was another thing:
Often the nuns would find him silently
Awake stretched on the ground, as if to say
100   ‘For this end am I come.’ Happy indeed
His father, with a name fit to display—
Felice—satisfaction, as we read
The grace of God set in his mother’s name,
Giovanna. Medicine and common law,
From which bright students take now their world fame,
Had no appeal. He loved true manna more,
Becoming, in so short a time, so great
A teacher, that he tamed the vineyard which
Soon withers if its keeper should be late,
110   Or lazy with his care, or would grow rich
In the wrong way, and to the papal seat—
Not in itself, but in its occupant,
Less kind now to the just poor, yet replete
In favour to itself, blind to its scant
Distance from decadence—he made appeal,
Not for the right to skim funds for good works,
Not for the first free post, not for a deal
To milk the tithes, not for the cosy perks,
But for the chance to fight the erring world
120   For faith, the seed from which they grew,
These twenty-four plants, each a flame unfurled,
The singing fires that here encircle you.
Then, like a torrent from a high spring hurled,
With doctrine, zeal and apostolic force
He went forth, and with mighty strength he fell
Upon those thorn bushes which were the source
Of heresy, and pummelled them pell-mell,
Most vigorously where they best fought back.
From him there sprang the energising streams
130   By which the thirsty saplings, when they lack
Sufficient water, flourish as it teems
In the Catholic garden. If such was one wheel
Of Holy Church’s fighting chariot—
With which she saved herself and brought to heel
Her enemies—then surely you are not
In doubt about the other excellence
That Thomas spoke of before I appeared,
And spoke so courteously. In one sense,
However, its top rim is cracked and peeled,
140   Or put it this way: mould has lined the cask
There where a good wine ought to leave a crust.
The wine went bad. His family at their task
Had started on the one path they could trust,
Formed by his footprints, but they turned about,
The one in front thrown on the one behind.
The lax were lauded and the strict cast out
And soon there’ll be a harvest of the kind
Where tares, denied the barn, start to complain.
Whoever searched our rule book page by page
150   Might still find on one leaf, after some strain,
‘I’m what I once was, even in this age,’
But he would be from neither of the schools
That vie to dominate the order now—
The one that petrifies its hallowed rules
Of poverty, the other that tells how
They count no more. I was the living soul
Of that man born in Bagnoregio
To lead the order and to keep it whole
By always rating worldly matters low.
160   Bonaventura was my name. And these?
Illuminato, early follower
Of Francis, and among the first to please
God with their barefoot poverty. They were
The vanguard of the cord. Here’s Augustine,
Another of them. Then the mystic Hugh,
Who at St. Victor wrote the books that mean
So much now; as, you must know, also do
The writings of the Bookworm Peter. Next,
Peter the Spaniard, logic’s champion,
170   Who codified it in twelve sheaves of text
That shine below for you to dwell upon.
The prophet Nathan foretold David’s sin
With someone else’s wife, and Chrysostom
Fought greed and helped the great Church to begin;
And then Anselm, in all of Christendom
The greatest theologian of his time.
And then Donatus, who once set his hand
To grammar, the first art, so we might climb
From verbal chaos and thus understand
180   Expressive form, one of the special fields
Of the Franciscan order. He who wrote
So much of the great library that yields
Our knowledge about everything of note
In exegesis, is Rabanus. See
Him there. And then the abbot Joachim,
Born in Calabria, shines close to me.
In life I quarrelled bitterly with him—
The world envisioned in his prophesy
Granted the spiritual significance
190   Beyond its bounds—but here we’re reconciled,
In how the bright connecting circles dance
Of love and knowledge. How St. Thomas smiles
On you with all his courtesy and fine
Judgement of glowing language is what draws
This celebration, from both me and mine,
Of such a mighty soldier for the cause—
Which is ours too, so this was all applause.”