Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 13–15 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 13–15

Let him imagine, who would comprehend
What I saw now—and let him hold the thought
Rock solid, while I speak, until the end—
The fifteen stars whose light is never caught
By any barrier in all the air,
Shining in various regions of the sky.
Let him imagine also the Great Bear
Of seven stars—which freely turn on high
Around a pole with room enough to keep
10 All visible—and add them to the score.
And then let him imagine how the steep
High axle-hub that caps the First Wheel’s core
Puts forth the Horn where two more stars stand out
Within the Little Bear. Then think of these
Two dozen stars arranged and turned about
All by themselves in all the right degrees
Into a pair of sparkling garlands spread
In heaven such as Ariadne made
From her wreath when she knew she’d soon be dead,
20 And Bacchus, loving her, raised her to braid
The Corona Borealis. As I said,
One shines within the other. Both revolve
In such a manner that one goes ahead,
The other after. That way he can solve
The problem, to a small extent—he’ll know
The shadow of the answer, if you will—
Of how that constellated double flow
Danced round the point where I now stood stock-still.
It lies as far beyond where thought can go—
30 Based on experience—as does the speed
In spinning of the Primum Mobile
Beyond the sluggish course through mud and reed
Of some tired Tuscan creek on a hot day.
They sang there, not of false and pagan gods
Like Bacchus or Apollo, but of three
Persons in one, combined against all odds—
And in one person, man and mystery.
The singing circle’s measure once complete,
The holy lights now gave us their regard,
40 Rejoicing that they had new aims to meet.
The change to unsung speech might have seemed hard,
But doctrine and their song permit no choice
Between. The light from which I’d heard the tale
Of Francis the Poor, man of God, gave voice.
Breaking the hush of those who never fail
To make God’s work their own, he spoke thus: “When
One sheaf is threshed and all its grain is stored—
I mean the line about the straying—then
Sweet Charity next calls me to accord
50 That treatment to the other. You believe
The light that was infused into the breast
Whence came the rib that made the whole world grieve,
Giving us her whose fair face failed the test
Of reining in her hunger—the same light
That shone into another breast, the one
The spear pierced, and which gave us, in the flight
Of past to future, satisfaction
That far outweighs, when balanced and set right,
Our every fault—you think that light, which is
60 The only light allowed to humankind,
Was all instilled by God, and is all his
Who made both man and Saviour. So your mind
Marvels at what I said about the good
Contained in the fifth light not having known
An equal since. When you have understood
The answer you have been already shown
By me, you’ll see my words and your belief
Meet in the centre of the circle, where
The truths reside. Of all truths, this is chief:
70 That which dies not and that which dies are there
As nothing but the splendour of our Sire’s
Idea, which, loving, he begets. Because
That living light—which, streaming from the fires
Of its bright source, is never, as it pours,
Detached from its first well, nor from the love
Which, with those two, makes three—collects its beams
Through its own goodness, mirrored there above
In nine angelic orders, without seams
Stitched into one forever, it descends
80 To earthly potencies from act to act,
Becoming such that all things have their ends
In brief contingency, the fleeting fact—
Things generated with, or without, seed—
Produced by movements of the heavens. Since
The wax of these, and that which does the deed
Of moulding—what’s imprinted and what prints—
Are not always the same, so that the light
Beneath the stamp can more, or less, shine through,
It happens that two trees of one type might
90 Bear better or worse fruit. The same with you:
You’re born with different talents. If the wax
Were perfectly receptive and the force
Of Heaven could run truly on the tracks
Of its descent, the seal would match the source
In brightness, but there is a falling short
By nature always, as the artist’s craft
Comes from a trembling hand. Yet keep this thought:
If the clear vision of the Primal Draught
Of Power is moved by burning Love, then all
100   Perfection is acquired up here. The Earth
Was once made fit for the impeccable
Advent of Adam, and our Saviour’s birth
Out of a virgin. Therefore I commend
Your judgement when it comes to nature’s lack
Of power ever afterwards to blend
With God, and bring that same achievement back—
Human perfection. If I left it there
And said no more, then you would say ‘So how
Was he we spoke about beyond compare?’
110   But just to clarify your mind, think now
Of who he was; and why, when bidden ‘Ask,’
He asked for wisdom. I have not concealed
My meaning with my words enough to mask
The fact he was a great king, who appealed
For knowledge suitable to that state. He
Did not ask which forms of the mental moved
This upper realm, how many they might be;
He didn’t seek to know how it is proved
Contingency undoes necessity
120   When any statement harbouring a doubt
Meets one that doesn’t; he had no concern
For motion without cause, nor cared about
A triangle that had no room to turn
Inside a semicircle if without
A right angle; or any of those things.
He wished to know only of government.
Note what I say and said, then: for the kings,
It’s royal wisdom that is heaven sent,
An unmatched vision. There the arrow lands
130   Of my intention. It applied to those
Men who wore crowns, and met the fierce demands
Of ruling in the world. Many arose:
Good ones were few, and still are hard to find.
Take my words thus, and they will fit the frame
With what you hold already in your mind,
About the world’s first father, and the same
For our Beloved. And let this be lead
To make your feet slow always, like a man
Grown weary, when a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ is said,
140   And you would move as quickly as you can
To either point, although your sight is dim.
For he indeed is a low-ranking fool,
Whichever point of view appeals to him,
Who weighs in, either way, without the rule
Of scrutiny, since often it occurs
That quick opinion swings to the wrong side,
And then the sudden storm of feeling blurs
The intellect, and so he breasts the tide
Worse than in vain when he casts off from shore,
150   For as he sets out he does not return
The same, who, fishing for the truth, is poor
In patient art. And of this you can learn
From minor minds that Aristotle scorned:
Parmenides and others who, confused
As to their course, would not be schooled or warned.
And scholars like Sabellius abused
Their role, and, to the scriptures, they were swords
Reflecting from their blades the natural face
Distorted. So we should be strict towards
160   All people when they judge at too great pace,
Like those who count the corn crop in the field
Before it’s ripe. I’ve seen the briar show
Harsh through the winter and too hard to yield
When touched, and yet when spring comes it will grow
The rose, and on the other hand I’ve known
A ship to cross the sea for all its course
Straight as a die, swift as a hawk alone,
And, at the harbour’s entrance, with full force,
Crack up and drown. Let not just anyone,
170   And his wife, Mrs. Anyone, assume,
Therefore, that when they witness a deed done
They can be certain of the doer’s doom
On the divine scale. One who robs may rise,
And one who makes an offering may sink.
Our judgement isn’t made from just our eyes,
And least of all will it be what we think
When we have barely taken time to blink.”
The water moves from rim to centre when
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
10 “This man requires—he may not tell you so
In words, or thought detectable by us—
To reach into another truth’s roots. Go,
You lights, and tell him if you’ll keep your bloom
For all eternity as now you glow,
Your substance flowering. Should he assume
That when, at resurrection, you arise,
Made visible, you will not fear the sight,
Seeing yourselves with ordinary eyes
Despite the fact that you remain this bright?
20 Or do you think you won’t be able to?”
Just as the singing dancers in a round,
Drawn on by joy, redouble what they do,
Lifting their voices as they spurn the ground
With quickened steps, so these ones, as they flew,
Kindled by the devout oration’s spark,
Showed new delight in how they turned and sang.
Whoever grieves that we die in the dark
Down here to live above, would find that pang
Soon put to rest if he could see, up there,
30 Refreshment spill from the eternal source.
They sang of One, of Two, of how Three share
The rule of Two and One, linked fields of force
Uncircumscribed though unified. This theme
Was sung three times by all of them, to such
A melody its beauty would not seem,
For any merit that it praised, too much.
And then I heard from that most sacred blaze
Of all the inner circle, a soft voice
That Mary might have heard with dazzled gaze
40 From the angel sent down to announce God’s choice.
“As long as there’s a Feast of Heaven, just
So long our love will generate these robes
Around us. For their brightness, you may trust,
Answers our ardour as it first englobes
Our vision, which in turn is amplified
By what divine grace does to merit. When
The flesh, made glorious with sacred pride,
Is put back on to us, our persons then
Will be more worthy, being more complete,
50 So that the light the Great Good freely grants
Will grow: the light that makes us fit to meet
His overwhelming grandeur with our glance.
So vision will increase, and form that flame,
Then ardour too, and then the radiance.
With any coal that glows white, it’s the same:
The glow outshines it, but its shape is kept.
So the effulgence that surrounds us will
Be far surpassed by what in earth has slept,
The buried flesh. But we, untroubled still,
60 Will simply have again, to make us strong,
Our bodies’ organs to abet the shell
Of light you see around the dancing song
Of our great joy.” And so keen, truth to tell,
Did both those choirs appear to say “Amen,”
That they showed very clearly their deep need
To have their bodies with them once again,
Not for themselves alone, perhaps: indeed
It might have been their parents they thought of,
And everybody else they once had known,
70 When they had lived, for whom they had felt love,
Before they changed to endless flame alone.
And then, behold! All round, and more intense
Than what it framed, an unflecked brightness rose,
The lustre that the new day’s imminence
Lends the horizon. And as, at the close
Of day, new light starts showing through the sky
Until the real looks unreal, I began
To see the first two rings encircled by
A third, of new souls. Mouth, do what you can:
80 Describe the sparkling of the Holy Ghost.
Eyes could not bear it. Suddenly it glowed
Beyond the prowess that my sight could boast.
To help me see again, fair Beatrice showed
Her smiling face that beggars memory.
My eyes gained strength and lifted, and I saw
Myself moved, with my lady next to me,
Up to a plane exalted even more,
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rosy-coloured than before
90 It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue—
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among—
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned in my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said
100   “Divine Sun that so glorifies this!” As
The galaxy, by lights inhabited—
Those lights pricked out both big and little—has
A way of whitening between the poles,
Spaced out at each end of the universe,
That puzzles still the very wisest souls—
How did it gather, when will it disperse,
This river in the sky?—the two beams made,
Thus constellated in the depths of Mars,
The venerable sign which is displayed
110   By quadrants in a circle, when crossed bars
Form the Greek cross. And here my skill must bow
To memory, for that cross so said Christ
In flames of glory, that I don’t know how
To find comparison. Who follows Christ
By taking up a cross must yet forgive
All that I leave untold, when in that dawn
He sees Christ’s outline come alight and live.
Between the peak and base, from horn to horn,
Lights moved that sparkled as they met and passed
120   Brightly, as, here, we see the particles
Of matter in the sunbeam, slow and fast,
Straight and askew, and think a light breeze lulls
Or lifts them, altering how they appear
Inside the shaft that sometimes streaks the dark
That we devise with cunning, from our fear
Of day undimmed. And as we might remark
How harp and viol, strung with many chords
In harmony, touch us with their sweet chime,
Though we don’t catch the tune their sound affords—
130   For too much beauty does not give us time—
So from that light a melody emerged
Sent by the cross, to hold me there entranced,
Although the hymn’s full meaning, as it surged,
I mainly missed. But as the song advanced
I did perceive how plaudits formed its theme.
The words “Arise” and “Conquer” I picked out:
Piercing suggestions of a general scheme,
Sure hints of what it must be all about,
And I was moved to such love that till then
140   Nothing had bound me with so sweet a chain.
My bold words here might seem excessive when
It is remembered how with might and main
I lavished praises on my lady’s eyes,
In which all my desires achieve their rest,
But one who takes the time to realise
That those twin living seals, which so attest
To all of beauty, gained in strength with each
Ascent, and that in Mars I had not turned
To see them once again, will quickly reach
150   The sound decision that I might have earned
Exemption from reproof, having accused
Myself, and see that all I say is true,
For there the holy pleasure is diffused
Unchecked. Far from excluded, it pours through:
As we climbed higher, the more pure it grew.
The will of grace—into which liquefies
Always the love that breathes in the right way,
As does cupidity, in its own guise,
Dissolve into ill will—now set the stay
Of silence on that sweet lyre, and made still
The sacred strings that Heaven renders taut
And loosens, with its right hand. When I fill
Their ears with my prayers that are justly wrought,
How can the souls be deaf, these spirits who,
10 To make me beg of them, with one accord
Fall dumb? His grief indeed is always new
That robs himself of love forever stored
Up there, and takes the love that cannot last.
As, through the still and cloudless evening sky,
Sometimes a sudden fire will run so fast
You’d think it were a star attracted by
The notion that it might change place—except
That where it came from no star has been lost
And only for a blink is this one kept,
20 Before, by vanishing, it pays the cost
Of its velocity—so from the horn
Of that cross, on the right, down to its base,
There streaked a single star abruptly born
Out of the splendid cluster there in place,
And this gem wasn’t from its ribbon torn:
Running across the radial strip it glowed
Like fire through alabaster. So the shade
Of great Anchises, carrying his load
Of fatherly affection, reached, and made
30 Himself known, to Aeneas, deep within
Elysium, and—if I may translate—
The shade, in Latin, said this to begin:
“My blood! The flow of God’s grace far too great
To measure! Who but you has ever seen,
A second time, the leaves of Heaven’s gate
Swing open?” Thus the light spoke. I had been
Fixed on it. Then I turned my eyes again
To my great lady, and was twice amazed:
By that speech first, and now by her face when
40 I saw her smiling eyes and how they blazed:
I thought I touched, with mine, my deepest grace
And paradise. The soul then added joy
To his first words with words I couldn’t place—
But still they gave delight, in his employ,
To sight and hearing—so deep was his speech.
Not from his choice, but from what had to be,
His meaning was concealed beyond my reach,
For his thought far outsoared mortality,
And when at last the bow of burning love
50 Relaxed enough to let his speech descend
To where the subject he was speaking of
Might fall within our scope to comprehend,
The first thing that I understood was: “Blessed
Be You, the Three-in-One, who, to my seed,
Show so much favour.” Then there was the rest:
“My son, it is a long and happy need—
Drawn from the reading of the mighty book
Whose black and white are never-changing things—
That you have satisfied here, when we look
60 Through this light and we speak: the light that sings
Out thanks to Him by whose will you are clad
For this high flight with your befitting wings.
You think that any thought you might have had
Comes down to me from Him, the Primal One,
Even as unity must radiate
All numbers, which go forth and get things done
As five, and six, but always illustrate
That first One. Thus you do not ask me who
I am, or why I seem the gladdest soul
70 Of all this happy throng. Well, good for you:
For your belief is right, and here the whole
Of what is thought comes back before you think
Out of the mirror. For both great and small,
This thing is true. But so that I may drink
To quench my sweet wish, satisfying all
The holy Love for which I stay alert
On constant watch, let your strong, fearless voice,
So full of joy and unafraid of hurt,
Sound forth the will to which I have no choice
80 Of answer, the desire I am ordained
To meet with my response.” And so I turned
To Beatrice, who without my speech had gained
My mind’s import, and smiled, a sign that burned
To make the wings grow on my will. I said:
“Love and Intelligence, after the First
Equality appeared to you, were led
Each to a poise where neither was dispersed
By the other, since the sun that lit and warmed
You both with even heat and light was so
90 Unbiased no imbalance can be formed.
In mortals, will and faculty don’t go
Together, for their wings have not the plumes
So equally arranged. I, as you know,
Am mortal. The discrepancy assumes,
In me, the form of feeling. I must give
My heartfelt thanks for your paternal vow
Of greeting. Tell me, topaz, as you live,
Gem of this precious jewel, your name.” “My bough,
Who made me joyful just by coming near,
100   I was your root.” His answer thus began,
And went on: “Know this much, now you are here:
We are connected, through a single man.
Around the hill a hundred years and more,
Down there on the first terrace, he has gone.
He was my son, and also he was your
Great-grandfather. His labours have gone on
A long time. It is fit you shorten them
With your good works. Your Florence, in those times,
Knew peace inside its ancient outward hem
110   Where still at nine and noon they hear the chimes.
But she was chaste then, flaunting not a gem—
No bracelet, no tiara, no fine gown
Rich with embroidery meant to be seen
More than the wearer warranted. The town
As yet lacked daughters certain to demean
A father with the fear they were too young
To marry, and the dowry was too high:
No house that still looked empty shared among
A family, or anyone to try
120   Outdoing Sardanapalus. Not yet
Did Rome give points to Florence on the rise,
As one day it will see that same sun set,
A fall worse than its own in its own eyes.
Gualdrada’s father, old Bellincion
Berti, in humble bone and leather clad,
I saw, and from the glass, with no paint on
Her face, his lady came. Good men were glad
To wear plain buff. Their women spun the flax.
Fortunate women! Then, they all knew where
130   They would be buried, home ground at their backs
And not the soil of exile. They were there—
Not elsewhere, with their husbands, loading sacks
Of gold in France. While one would tend the crib,
Soothing the new child with the baby talk
Father and mother love, mopping its bib,
Guarding her hatchling like a mother hawk,
Another, from the distaff drawing skeins,
Would tell the servants stories of how Troy,
Through Rome and then Fiesole, remains
140   Alive in Florence. We take little joy
Today in shameless women, or in men
Who are not honest, but in those days they
Would have been freaks. Such things were unknown then.
It would have been as if, the other way,
Great Romans such as Cincinnatus came
To us, or women like Cornelia.
To such a fair and civil life where fame
Was all for peace, the public life by far
More loyal, to so sweet a domicile
150   Mary consigned me when my mother called
Her name in pain, and in the ancient style
Of your old Baptistery I was installed
As Christian and as Cacciaguida both:
Brothers, Moronto and Eliseo.
The future wife to whom I pledged my troth?
Ferrara, in the valley of the Po
Bred her. Her family name lives in your stem,
For it was Alighieri. Currado
Joined France’s Louis and then I joined them
160   To go on the Crusade. The emperor
Made me a knight, so greatly did I earn
His favour as we battled that false law
Whose people, because our popes never learn,
Still rob you of your rightful Holy Land,
And there that foul breed disentangled me
From the deceitful world which has unmanned
So many souls for love of it. Set free
By martyrdom, I found the peace you see.”