Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 16–18 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 16–18

Our poor nobility of blood! If you
Move men to glory in you here below
Where our affections languish as they do,
It never will cause me to ask “How so?”
Since even there, where appetites run true,
Unwarped, in Heaven, I was brought to know
Glory in you. For truly you wore such
A mantle as will quickly shrink if not
Added to, day by day, at least as much
10 As time goes round to shear off what it’s got.
Thus with the plural “you”—once Rome’s polite touch
Of speech to honour Caesar, but which since
Has lapsed (the present Romans use it least,
No doubt because they think it would evince
Some small thought for the empire they have ceased
To pay allegiance to)—I spoke again,
And Beatrice, a little set apart,
Smiled at my honorific word, as when
The lady coughed to warn the hasty heart
20 Of Guinevere, and him that wooed her then,
That she knew their great secret. I spoke this:
“You are my father, you gave me the nerve
To speak, you lift me up so that I miss
No aspect of myself that goes to serve
The object of increasing me. My mind
Is filled with sheer joy by so many streams
That it rejoices further still to find
It bears up without bursting at the seams.
So tell me then, dear shade from which I stem,
30 Who were your ancestors? Your boyhood, how
Do you recall its years? Remember them
For me. And Florence, not as it is now,
But when it was the sheepfold of St. John,
How big was it? Which were the families
Deemed fit for the high seats that they sat on?”
As coal is quickened by the merest breeze
To flame, just so I saw that light take fire,
At my fond words, and as it grew more fair
In my sight, so I heard its voice acquire
40 Yet more the sweetness of a gentle air,
But not in new speech: from an older store.
“From that first Ave till the day that I
Was born, five hundred times and eighty more
Mars came back to the Lion in the sky
To be rekindled underneath its paw,
For two more years. And I was born, like all
My family members who had gone before,
Just where the runners reach the inner wall
In your games every year. Let it suffice
50 To hear this much about my forebears: who
They were and whence they came exacts a price
If spoken of. Silence will have to do:
Just say that they were old stock. All those there
Between the Baptistery and the Old Bridge
And of an age that they had arms to bear,
Beside those who now have that privilege
Were but a fifth, yet still the blood was pure
Even in humble artisans, who now
Reflect in every vein, you may be sure,
60 All the surrounding villages. Yes, how
Much better to have all those aliens
For neighbours, with their place outside your bounds,
Than face the knowledge of their teeming dens
Within your gates, enduring on your grounds
The stink of those two crooks from out of town,
Baldo and Fazio, both lawyers schooled
Elsewhere to skills in how to do you down.
One of those swine, who had the council fooled,
Kept you in exile. If the popes and priests—
70 They who fell furthest short of what they should
Have done—had not behaved like beasts,
Those cruel stepmothers to great Caesar could
Have been real mothers to a son. There’s one
Grand name I know up to his neck in trade
Who‘d be back home where such stuff ‘s better done,
Although his grandfather went bankrupt, paid
In smaller coin. Pistoia’s main street still
Would own the castle that now Florence rules,
And not the Conte Guidi. Names that fill
80 The annals of our strife and leave dark pools
Of blood, might have remained in valleys far
Beyond our walls. Mixture of origin
Has brought us to the point where we now are,
Just as the body’s ills often begin
With bolted food. Remember how the bull,
Because too big, more easily will fall
Than any lamb which lives to keep its wool,
And that a single sword—what we might call
A symbol for a people unified—
90 Cuts better and cuts more than any five.
If you recall how other cities died
And others still are only just alive—
Luni and Urbisaglia are quite gone,
Chiusi and Senigallia, almost—
Then you’ll see nothing strange to dwell upon
At famous families giving up the ghost,
Since cities do the same. All your affairs
Will have their death in time, like you. But this
Fact is concealed in anything time spares
100   For any span, and our short lives might miss
Seeing the way it ends. Just as the shores
Are covered and uncovered by the moon
Without cease from her heaven, fortune pours
Its tides on Florence, which are just as soon
Withdrawn, a flux the living eye ignores,
But it occurs. It’s not a marvel, then,
That I can speak of the great Florentines
Whose names are faded now, forgotten men.
I could name famous names, but each name means
110   So little now, that once meant power and wealth.
Some were already in decline, but some
Had all the lustre, dominance and health
That they had always had. How could they come
To nothing? Come they did. Over the gate
Which bears today such an unheard-of load
Of perfidy it’s creaking with the weight
And soon must crack up like a barque tight stowed
With rotten grain, where now the Cerchi plot
Their infamies, the Ravignani dwelt,
120   And of their line came all those who were got
On daughters of Bellincion. Men knelt
Already to the della Pressa. From
The house of Galligaio shone the gold
Sword-hilt and pommel, knighthood’s burdensome
But proud insignia. Noble of old,
So long illustrious, they hang their shield
In exile now, the Ghibelline old guard.
The Pigli coat of green pale in red field
Was great, and all the bloodlines that die hard:
130   Sacchetti and Fifanti (he unreeled
A whole long honour roll) are scattered names
By now, but they were all together then:
Who now are embers once were living flames.
The stock of the Calfucci bred great men:
Sizii and Arrigucci, Guelphs all, sat
In seats of office. Here I saw them grand:
All the Uberti long since fallen flat
Because they heeded pride’s obsessed demand.
Chiaramontesi falsified the sale
140   Of salt by short weight. Lordly, rich in land,
Once they were bold, yet now you see them pale,
Blushing forever for one foolish hour.
The golden balls of the Lamberti shone
In Florence when that family had its power,
And now the clan of Mosca is all gone
Into the shadow. I saw the first flower
Of men whose sons seized every chance to leech
On vacant bishoprics and split the take.
The Adimari—honeyed in their speech
150   To him with teeth to bite and claws to rake,
Yet dragons at the back of him that flees—
The Adimari, bred to insolence
And on the rise already, did not please
Ubertino Donati, whose expense,
At marriage, turned out to include a link
Of shameful kinship with their paltry stock.
The Caponsacchi, come down from the brink
Of high Fiesole, had doors to lock
Already near the market. And mark this:
160   Giuda and Infangato were esteemed
As citizens. And here’s one you might miss
(Unless I told you, you would not have dreamed):
The inner gate was once named for the line
Of della Pera, and where are they now?
And Baron Hugh of Tuscany’s design
Of arms was one with which he would endow
All of his house since then until today,
When still the feast of Thomas signifies
His hour of death. The same coat’s proud display
170   Marks Giano della Bella, who denies
The rich the right to crush their underlings,
And turns his words to action. Just the edge
Of his shield differs: all the quarterings
Come down from that one source of patronage—
The Baron, still the captain of his tomb
In the Badia. The Borgo would have stayed
Quiescent, but the Amidei spelt doom
For Buondelmonte. A just price he paid
For jilting their dear daughter, but they spread
180   Their vengeance further, and so all the tears
You weep now sprang from that one watershed,
When that one house had honour. Many years
Of civil strife began there. Happiness,
For you, died then, with clans at daggers drawn.
Ah, Buondelmonte, if you’d listened less
To bad advice, and not held vows in scorn,
And not fled! Many men, since you first crossed
The Ema, on your way into our town,
Would now be glad and not in grief be lost
190   If God had pushed you into it to drown.
But it was fitting that the wasted stone
Of Mars that guards the bridge should see one last
Peace offering—a man cut down alone—
Before all that the city in the past
Had known of harmony was torn to bits.
It was with all these families and more—
I mention only those that time permits—
That I saw Florence as she was before,
In all her plenitude of joyful calm,
200   Her people glorious. Not once in war
The lily on her flag had come to harm,
Turned head to toe to show disgrace and spite,
Or changed in colour. When the Guelphs expelled
The Ghibellines, the lily turned from white
To red, to show the victors held
The field. It was our city. What a sight:
The flag of daylight changed to fly by night.”
As Phaethon, when he heard that he was not
Apollo’s son, came in confusion to
His mother Clymene, from whom he got
Assurance that he was indeed the true
Heir to the god—and then he asked if he
Could drive the chariot for just one day,
Which led to such complete catastrophe
All fathers with ambitious sons will say
They were made wary by the memory—
10 Just so was I, and so I was esteemed
To be by Beatrice, and also by
The holy lamp that previously had seemed
To alter its position in the sky
Solely for my sake. Then my lady said:
“Put forth the flame of your desire, so it
May bear the mark of what lies in your head
And heart, the inner stamp that shapes to fit
The stuff that forms the sign, not just to swell
Our knowledge with your words, but to secure
20 The process yielding you a truth to tell
About your thirst, so that the draft so pure
May be poured out for you.” I spoke just so
To Cacciaguida. “Dearest plot of seed,
You that are raised so high that just as no
Mentalities on earth are not agreed
Two angles, and no fewer, are acute
In any triangle, so you, when you
Gaze at the point where light is absolute
And all times come together, see what’s true
30 Before it is, contingent things before
They are—when I and Virgil walked the hill
That heals the souls, and when we plumbed the core
Of that dead world where souls are always ill,
Grave words about my future life I heard—
Though I feel set four-square against the blows
Of chance, for if, before it has occurred
I know my fortune, all the anguish goes
From my desire, since it is met, just as
An arrow, when foreseen, more gently flies
40 Our way, as if what’s not yet happened has.”
Thus, speaking of my wish in the same wise
That Beatrice bade me, I addressed the light
That talked to me before. Not with the dark
Riddles by which fools tied their meaning tight
Before the Lamb of God undid that mark
Of sin he answered me, but in plain speech
And clear-cut terms—paternal love revealed
In words—he granted what he had to teach,
By his own smile both laid bare and concealed.
50 “Contingency, in your small world confined,
Is part of the Eternal Vision, yet
Does not derive, from that all-seeing mind,
Necessity. Think of the ship that met
Our eyes but later dropped downstream. From this
What lies in store for you in times to come
Comes to my eyes with the sweet synthesis
Of organ notes in their harmonic sum
Striking the ear. Just as Hippolytus,
When he staved off the cruel incestuous will
60 Of Phaedra, was cast out of Athens, thus
You will be sent from Florence. To fulfil
This aim—which is determined and contrived
In detail and will soon come true—there sits,
As pleased as if the moment had arrived
Already, him the papal crown now fits,
Proud in the hall where Christ is bought and sold
All day. Yes, Boniface. And, as it must,
The outcry of the common crowd will scold
The injured one. Though vengeance, to prove just
70 The truth that sends it, will come, you will leave
All that you love the best, which is the bolt
That exile’s bow shoots first. You will achieve
Full proof the bread of others tastes of salt,
And how all stairs are steep when they belong
To other men, to climb or to descend,
And what will weigh you down, however strong
Your shoulders, is the evil without end
Of all the senseless company you keep
In that sad valley into which you fall:
80 Ungrateful, raving even in their sleep
With fury aimed at you. Quite soon they all
Shall have red brows, not you. Their foolish deeds
Will prove their brute stupidity. That you
Are by yourself a party, one that needs
No other membership: that fact will do
You honour. Your first refuge, your first inn,
You’ll find by courtesy of that great stem
Of Lombards, the Scaligers. To begin
Your sojourn, you will meet the first of them,
90 Bartolomeo, with his family shield—
The ladder with the empire’s eagle spread
Above—held out for you, that it may yield
Protection. His regard will so be wed
With grace, that everything you two exchange
Of asking and of giving will be turned
The other way around: he will arrange
All that you need before you say so. Burned
From birth by this brand of a mighty star,
One you will see whose deeds will be renowned.
100   The people have not noted him so far:
For just nine years the wheels have circled round
His young head. But before Henry’s deceived
By Gascon Clement, this youth will show sparks
Of the heroic. It will be believed,
Even by enemies, this great dog barks
Against mere wealth, and his munificence
Will be part of his military fame.
Such generous bravery, sparing no expense,
You’ll learn to look for in his blazing name—
110   Can Grande della Scala. With his aid
Fortunes will change for many. Many rich
Will be brought low, and beggars raised in grade
To take their place, and these are all things which
You’ll carry written in your mind about
This great prince of Verona, but you can’t
Speak of them yet.” And then he spelled them out,
Things people will one day see, and yet shan’t
Believe their eyes. And then he added: “Son,
These are expansions on the several hints
120   You’ve had about the things that will be done
To you in just a few short years, which, since
They haven’t happened yet, are still, like snares,
Concealed where they lie waiting. And yet you
Should not, when you compare your fate with theirs,
Envy your neighbours. For the deeds they do
Their punishment will come, but far beyond
That date, your life will last.” The holy soul
Fell silent, having said this to respond
To my entreaty. So it was made whole,
130   The woven cloth of which I’d set the weft:
He’d put the woof into the web. Now I
Began again—I still had one doubt left—
Seeking from him, that I’d been counselled by,
The benefit of how he saw, and willed
And loved, all rightly. “Father, I see well
How time, that wants my destiny fulfilled,
Digs in the spurs and heads for me pell-mell
To deal the blow which falls with greatest weight
On him who heeds least. All the better, then,
140   That I am given power to see my fate
So that, if I may not come home again,
I shan’t lose other places by my songs.
Down through the world of endless bitterness
And on the fair hill where they purge their wrongs,
Up from the peak from which the eyes I bless
Of my dear lady lifted me to find
Light after light throughout these halls of good,
That journey forms a lesson in my mind
Which, should I tell it, would be sheer wormwood
150   To many. And if I prove, to the truth,
A timid friend, I fear to lose my name
Among all those who one day, in their youth,
Will call these old times.” Bright light turned to flame.
Inside, the smiling treasure I had found:
Outside, a golden mirror in the blaze
Of sunlight, saying “Conscience, I’ll be bound,
Shamed by its own or someone else’s ways,
Indeed will find your words harsh. Still you must
Put lies aside and make your vision plain,
160   And let those scratch who have an itchy crust,
Since if your voice, at first taste, gives them pain,
Yet it will nourish when it’s taken in.
For even as the wind, this cry of yours
Will strike the highest peaks, which is to win
No little honour. This has been the cause
That you’ve been shown, in these wheels here, and on
The mountain, and down in the woeful pit,
Only the souls that fame has fixed upon,
In order that the story you transmit
170   Will capture the attention of all those
Who recognise the names. For otherwise
They’d be shut out as if by doors that close
Ahead of them. The secret of surprise
Lies in a framework that we recognise.”
Already that blessed mirror, in his thoughts,
Rejoiced alone. I was still tasting mine,
Striving to balance their contesting sorts,
The bitter and the sweet, while the divine
Lady conducting me to God on high
Said “Think again. Remember I am near
The One that all wrongs are made weightless by.”
My comfort’s loving voice, love I could hear,
Caused me to turn, and then I saw her eyes:
10 Love I could see, but whose full force must rest
Untold for now, because its power defies
The saying of it. I can’t pass the test
Of putting all that glory into speech,
And, also, memory jibs at the task
Of turning back beyond where it can reach
Without the One’s help. It’s too much to ask.
Yet, of that moment, this much I can tell:
I looked at her, and my heart was set free
Of all other desires. The light that fell
20 On her was the Eternal Joy. To me
It was reflected from her eyes so fair—
The Second Aspect of divinity,
It satisfied and overwhelmed me there
Through her smile. She said “Turn and listen now,
For Paradise is not just in my gaze.”
And as sometimes a human face shows how
The soul is seized by an emotion’s blaze,
Just so, in that burst of the holy fire
The sacred furnace towards which I turned,
30 I recognised the signs of his desire
To speak to me of more I’d not yet learned.
He spoke thus: “Here the tree, in its fifth hall—
The tree that lives top down, always in fruit,
Never to shed its leaves—is home to all
Those souls whose living fame was so acute
Before they came up here, poets grew rich
In praise from praising them. Regard, therefore,
The cross’s arms, and note the speed with which,
When I name names, each one will travel more
40 Swiftly than lightning through a cloud.” A light
Flashed through the cross to beat the spoken sound
Of Joshua’s name. Sound yielded to the sight
Of Maccabeus, brightly spinning round
While flying, like a child’s top whipped by joy.
Charlemagne and Roland drew my focused glance
Like falcons in their flight. Next to employ
That path across the cross came, not by chance,
William and Renouard, who both once slew
The Saracen, though Renouard was born
50 A Saracen himself. Duke Godfrey flew
The same route, the crusader who had worn
A king’s crown in Jerusalem. There, too,
Was Robert Guiscard, founder of the line
Of Normans in our south. These were the knights
Of Christian battle whose brave names still shine
For us today. And now, among their lights,
Shone Cacciaguida, who had said such things
To me, and now had gone to show his skill
At singing, there where everybody sings,
60 In that realm. On my right hand, Beatrice still
Stood waiting to say what my duties were
By word and sign. I saw her eyes so glad
And clear that her whole aspect spoke for her
Of even more delight now than she had
Displayed at any time, even the last,
And as a man delights in doing good,
Aware each day that this day has surpassed
The day before in virtue, so I could
Be certain, when I saw that miracle
70 More fair than ever, that my circling route
Around the heavens had become more full,
The radius making radiance more acute.
Just such a change as strikes the pale white face
Of a woman set free from a weight of shame
Now struck my eyes, as I took up my place
Inside the white light of the temperate flame
Of Jupiter, the sixth star. I saw there,
In Jove’s torch, the bright sparkle of the love
Consigned to trace our speech in vivid air
80 To our eyes, and, as birds that rise above
The river bank, well pleased at how they fed,
Are now a round flock, now some other form,
Just so those holy souls by song were led
Within their lights, shaping their shining swarm,
Each one so quick and vivid on its own,
To various figures as they flew, now D,
Now I, now L. First, singing each alone,
They sang their own notes. When combined to be
One of these shapes, however, then they paused
90 In silence. Ah, divine Calliope,
Muse-child of Pegasus, you that have caused
Glory in genius, as it has done
To cities and whole kingdoms, give me aid
With your light so that I may, one by one,
Describe these several figures as I made
Them out. For these lines, give me all you’ve got.
In five times seven verbs and consonants
They showed themselves. I noted all, and what
They seemed to mean as they combined to dance.
100   “Love justice” said the first words of the lot
(In Latin: I translate) that met my glance,
And “you that judge at home” was the last bold
Phrase written. In the fifth word shone an m
And it was silver all pricked out with gold,
And to the summit of this precious gem
Descended other lights, all it could hold,
And they sang of the Good attracting them
Into itself. Then, as rich sparks arise
In myriads when burning logs are struck—
110   Prompting crass auguries from the unwise—
So countless lights appeared to come unstuck
From there and float up, some the more, some less,
According to the impulse of the sun
That kindled them in this way to express
Its love, and when the whole design was done
With each spark settled, then I saw the head
And neck of a great eagle, all picked out
In fire. He that designs this can’t be said
To have a guide. He guides. We look about
120   And see a bird’s nest, and we know the force
That formed it is from Him. And now the rest
Of those blessed souls, which seemed to be on course
To gild a lily on the M, digressed—
Forgetting France or Florence as a source
Of empire, finding Rome was still the best—
And joined their friends in the heraldic scheme.
Sweet star, how many and how bright the jewels
Making it plain to me that all we deem
As earthly justice with its written rules
130   Is Heaven’s work, the sky in which you gleam!
Therefore I pray the Mind in which begin
Your movement and your power, that it regard
The place in Rome that makes the smoke wherein
Your beam is dimmed. High time to crack down hard
Once more on trade within the temple walls,
Put there by miracle and martyrdom.
Sky armies upon whom my vision falls,
Pray now for those on Earth, distracted from
The truth by ill example! Once it was
140   The custom to make war with swords, but now
It’s done by holding back the bread because
The ones denied that nourishment see how
It can be had again for coin, although
Sweet God decreed that none should be deprived
Of sacraments. But you that traffic so,
Giovanni, you that, grasping, have contrived
To sell indulgences for ready cash,
Take thought of Peter and of Paul, who died
To plant the vineyard that you turn to trash:
150   They are alive. You might say, in your pride,
“I know them not, for I have set my mind
On him who lived alone till Salome
Danced him to bloody death, and whom you’ll find
Depicted on the florin. That’s the way
Ahead for me, and for the Church today.”