Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 19–21 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 19–21

With open wings, the lovely image reared
Before me: those collected spirits, glad
In sweet fruition. Each of them appeared
To be a little ruby the sun had
Instilled with such a flame the light was thrown
Back to my eyes. And all that I have now
To tell, was never yet by tongue made known,
Nor put in ink. No fancy has known how
Even to think of it. I saw and heard
10 The beak talk, saying “I” and “mine” for “we”
And “ours,” so lending one voice to each word.
“For being pure and kind I come to be
Exalted here to glory unsurpassed
By any worldly wish, and on the earth
I left behind, such memories now last
That even wicked men concede the worth
Of what I did, though they don’t do the same.”
In just the way we feel a single glow
From many brands, out of that image came
20 A single sound that many loves made so.
And then I: “Everlasting flowers of bliss
Eternal, who make all your perfumes seem
To me but one, when you breathe forth like this
You save me from the fast no feasts redeem
On Earth, of which my hunger was the proof.
I know that though a mirror for Divine
Justice takes fire beneath another roof
Of Heaven, none the less you see it shine
Without a veil. You must know how intent
30 I am on listening: you know the doubt
I hungered from so long, and what it meant.”
Just as the falcon moves its head about,
Freed from its hood, and once more flaps its wings
To show how keen it is, and dips its beak
To preen its feathers, so I saw these things
Echoed by that sign getting set to speak,
Combining all the songs that those up there
Rejoice in. “He that compassed all the bounds
Of this world—and, in it, made some things bare
40 To sight and others hid, so it astounds
With its variety—could not impress
His Power thus throughout the universe
Without his Word, in infinite excess,
Remaining, and this truth we can rehearse
By thinking of the fate of Lucifer,
That first proud spirit, highest of the high,
And how, before his ripeness could occur,
He fell the day he could no longer fly,
Because he had not waited for the light,
50 The Word of God. From which it follows, all
The lesser natures at a lower height
Are too slight vessels for the flood we call
The Good, which has no limits we can find,
And only by itself is measured. Thus
Our vision is but one ray of the Mind
That fills all things, and it is not for us
To blink the fact that our sight’s origin
Lies far beyond the furthest we can see,
And so the power of eyesight working in
60 Your world may pierce the sheer infinity
Of Everlasting Justice only as
The eye into the sea, whose bottom shows
Near shore, but in the open deep it has
No bottom to be seen, though the mind knows
Depth has concealed the truth. All light must come
From clear unclouded sky. Else, darkness reigns,
The shadow of the flesh, which is the sum
Of all its sensual errors and dark stains.
But now the place is opened up to you
70 Which hid the Living Justice you have sought
So often, saying ‘What good does it do
For some man born in India who’s taught
Nothing of Christ by speech or text, and yet
All his desires and deeds, with virtue filled,
In life or speech show nothing to upset
Our human reason. With not one sin willed,
Outside the faith and unbaptized he dies.
Where is the justice that condemns him? Where
Is this man’s fault?’ But who are you, whose eyes
80 Would judge across a thousand miles of air
From your small bench with short sight? Yes, we could
Dispute the issue, you and I, and were
No scriptures set above you, then there would
Be ample room to cavil and demur,
As if your questions counted. Clods of earth!
Mud brains! Nothing can move the Primal Will.
Good is itself, draws from itself all worth:
Whatever meets that mark can do no ill
And must be just. And no good that is made
90 Can draw it in, because its blazing rays
Create that good as well, and are displayed
In all it makes, and all that meets our gaze.”
Just like the circling stork above the nest
Where she has fed her young, and the one fed
Looks up to her, so I below the blessed
And lofty image as its bright wings, led
By many counsels, moved to make it wheel.
It sang, then spoke to me. “The notes I sing
That you can’t follow but whose truth you feel,
100   Show you the Holy Word is everything,
To mortals, that they cannot comprehend
About Eternal Judgement.” Then they paused,
Those scintillating fires without an end,
Sparks of the Holy Ghost, the sign that caused
The world to hail the Romans still their frame—
Which then began again. “None ever rose
To this realm who did not revere the name
Of Christ, either before the doom He chose
Or after it. The tree, the nails, the death:
110   These they believed. But some who cry Christ! Christ!
Will be less near to Him at their last breath
Than many others who do not know Christ.
Even the Ethiope shall then condemn
Such false Christians, when those two companies
Are parted so there’s no more joining them,
The rich and poor, forever. Infamies
Of your kings will be in the open book.
What will the Persians say when they see writ,
Among the deeds of Albert, how he took
120   The realm of Prague from Wenceslas, and it
Was ruined? And the misery shall be seen
Brought to the Seine by Philip when he tore
The value from the coin, stripping it clean
Of worth, and he himself killed by a boar
He hunted. Also will be seen the pride
That maddens men with thirst, so that the Scot
And Englishman can’t keep to their own side
Of the drawn line, but think that what they’ve got
Is nothing without what the other holds.
130   And it will show the way the King of Spain
Was lost to lust and luxury’s soft folds,
And that Bohemia shrank from the reign
Of one who knew no worth nor sought it out.
And crippled Charles of Anjou, for his one
Real virtue, liberality, no doubt
Will get a mark, but the evils he has done
A thousand marks. The avarice of him
In Sicily, and also his faint heart,
Will there be shown in words no eye can skim,
140   For they will be abbreviated, part
Serving for whole, so as to fit the news
In a small space. And all the dreadful deeds
Of that same Frederick’s uncle will accuse
Themselves in that book, for whoever reads.
His brother, too, will be accounted for:
A pack by whom a noble lineage
Has been dragged through the mud, and what is more—
And here alone is text for a whole page—
Two crowns have been besmirched. And Portugal
150   And Norway too will have kings named. And he
Of Serbia, who forged the means to call
A lead plug a Venetian ducat. We
May cry ‘Ah, happy Hungary!’ now that
No longer she connives at her own wrong.
Happy Navarre, were she not aiming at
Abject surrender to the siren song
Of a dynastic marriage. Let her trust
In her surrounding mountains, and be warned
By Cyprus, whose twin cities sadly must
160   Live with the loose French ruler they once scorned—
And pray for a new day, which has not dawned.”
When he that lights the whole world sinks from sight
Out of our hemisphere, so that the day
Is spent on all sides, sky concedes to night—
Sky that was lit by him alone gives way
To many lights, all shining with his light.
This scattering in the sky came to my mind
When the world’s flag, and flag of all its kings,
Fell silent in its beak, for me to find
That all its shining points, those living things,
10 Shone still more brightly, and a river flowed
Of songs I cannot now recall. Sweet love
Mantled in smiles, how brilliantly you showed
Yourself in those flutes as they soared above,
Filled with the breath of holy thoughts that glowed!
After the lucid, precious gems with which
The sixth realm was bejewelled had chimed their last,
I seemed to hear a mountain streamlet switch
Its murmuring path from rock to rock, not fast
But falling, softly, proving full the source
20 It came from, high up; and as sound takes form
At the lute’s frets, and as breath shapes its force
At the pipe’s vent, so, rising through the swarm
Of lights that made the neck, the murmur welled
As if the throat were hollow. I was kept
Waiting no longer. Clear words were expelled,
Awaited words. Out of the beak they swept,
These words that I’d longed for, and now wrote down.
“That part with which a mortal eagle sees
And turns towards the sun without a frown,
30 Watch now in me. From fires of all degrees
My shape is made, and those that make the eye
That sparkles in my head outrank the rest.
The one the shining pupil is made by
Is he who brought the ark home like a guest
While always singing of the Holy Ghost.
Now David knows the burden of that song,
As he conceived it, was no idle boast,
Because the recompense is rich and long
For his wise counsel. Of the five who make
40 My eyebrow’s arch, the nearest to my beak
Is Trajan, who joined in the widow’s wake
For her son. Now he knows how life is bleak
Without Christ, for he’s seen the difference,
Having been pagan once, and later saved.
Next on the upward curve of eminence
Above my eye, Hezekiah shines, who craved
More time, and his repentance helped him there,
For what he asked Isaiah he obtained—
A long life, and now life beyond compare.
50 And next comes Constantine, the one that reigned
In Rome, and who meant well by moving east
And turning Greek with me and all the laws,
And one good thing came out of it at least:
There was no harm for him, although his cause,
That made the Pope a king, only increased
The chaos in the world. His crop we reap.
William you see next on the downward curve,
For whom now Sicily and Naples weep,
As living Charles and Frederick show they serve
60 Themselves: but how the power of love runs deep
Up here for the just king, is proved to us
By his face spilling fire. Who would have guessed,
In the erring world below, that Ripheus
Of Troy would be the fifth light in this crest?
The sea of Grace the world finds a deep thing
He sees through now, though not down the whole way.”
Just as the soaring lark at first will sing
And then fall silent, by its latest play
Of sweetness satisfied, that image seemed
70 To me. It was the imprint of the Will
Of the Eternal Pleasure, which has deemed
That all which was, and is, and will be still,
Might be. As glass is to its coloured coat
I was to my perplexity, and yet
My question would not wait to play a note,
But weight and pressure forced it from the set
Of my lips. “How can these things be?” I said,
And then I saw a sudden festival
Of lights, and then the bright eye in its head
80 Flashed still more, as the sign replied, lest all
My stunned suspense continue. “If you think
These things are true because I say them, yet
You can’t see how they can be, so they sink
From sight although believed, then all you get
From anything is just its name: the pith
Of that thing is withheld from you, unless
It’s all set out for you to conjure with.
For Heaven’s Kingdom suffers, and will bless,
Violence of vivid love and hope on fire,
90 Which conquer the Divine Will not as man
May conquer man, but out of its desire
Thus to be conquered, and because its plan
Is conquest through its goodness. Yes, the first
And fifth stars of my eyebrow puzzle you
To see the realm of angels thus imbursed.
But here and now you should revise your view
That they were unbelievers when they left
Their bodies. They were Christians, of firm faith,
One that the dear Feet would be nailed and cleft,
100   The other that they were. Trajan, a wraith,
Came out of Hell to find his bones again,
And since none there are saved by willing good,
This was the prize for that saint among men,
Pope Gregory, whose prayers were understood
And helped by God, so that one damned might then
Be raised to where his will could be so moved.
This glorious soul, returned thus to the flesh
For a short time, believed in Him that proved
Able to intercede. Love flared afresh
110   From that belief. The emperor lived to face
His next death, and came here to us. And now
Regard the Trojan, saved by God’s good grace
Whose fountain goes so deep no one knows how
To see down to its wellspring, its first place,
And yet he came to love the right, his eyes
Opened by God from grace to grace, to our
Future Redemption. Truth that never dies
He found, and so, believing in its power,
He spurned the stench of paganism from
120   That day, scolding the people in its spell
For their perversity. His baptism
A thousand years too soon? That task befell
Three ladies you saw near the gospel car
At its right wheel: Faith, Hope and Love. Your root,
Predestination, how it stands so far
From that gaze—gaze no matter how acute—
Which sees in parts but can’t see how they are
United in the First Cause! Mortals, be
Restrained in judging. We, who see God, know
130   Not all of the elect as yet, and we
Find the lack sweet, our good perfected so
By His. We will what God wills, willingly.”
Thus from the image I got medicine
Sweetly to clear the shortness of my view,
And as a good guitarist will bring in
The notes of trembling strings to make more true
The singer’s melody, whereby the song
Grows sweeter still, so, while it spoke, the paired
Exalted lights kept time and played along,
140   Like eyes that blinked together and then flared
Their little flames, moved by the words they shared.
Already with my eyes fixed on her face
Again—and, with my eyes, my mind,
Which had no thoughts of any other place—
My lady did not smile, but, to be kind,
She said, “Were I to smile, you would become
Like Semele when she was turned to ash
By Jupiter, her lover, in his sum
Of splendour unadorned. It would be rash:
My beauty, which you’ve seen increase the higher
10 We climb together on the lofty stairs
Of this eternal palace, is a fire
So brilliant that the strength your body bears
Would be, if mine were not restrained, a bough
Split by a thunderbolt. Here we arise
To Saturn, seventh splendour, which is now
Close under Leo’s burning breast, a guise
In which the planet sends down mingled rays
With extra powers. So now, behind your eyes,
Let your mind make them mirrors for the blaze
20 Of that shape which will now appear to you.”
Great was the joy I took from seeing her,
But when she made me look at something new
The joy was greater still: I could defer
To her desires and could remember too
I had beheld her, so the scale-pans were
Poised in the balance. Bearing the great name
Of that chief who killed off all wickedness
In Crete, and gave the Golden Age its fame,
The crystal Saturn ringed the world. No less
30 Than gold in sunlight flashed a ladder there,
Rising so far its top rungs fled my sight.
Descending it were splendours past compare
And so past counting I thought every light
In heaven had been poured out through the air:
And as the jackdaws, when they rise at dawn
Together, by their natural habit sent
To warm cold feathers, split up, with some drawn
Away not to return from where they went,
And some turn back to where they started from,
40 And some stay wheeling, so it seemed to me
Such movements took place in the maelstrom
Of lights arriving scintillatingly
On any given step. The one that paused
Closest to us became so bright, I said
In my mind: “I see well what love has caused
Your signal.” But from her by whom I’m led
To speak or else keep silent, there came not
A word, so that, against my will, I made
No query. She, aware the cat had got
50 My tongue because I’d seen One who displayed
The signs of seeing everything, spoke thus:
“Now satisfy your keen desire.” And I:
“I’m far from being meritorious
Enough to hear your answer, but I’ll try—
For her sake who grants me the leave to ask
The question—to be worthy in the way
I frame it. Let due reverence be my task.
Blessed living soul, still hidden in the spray
Of light which is your happiness, what brings
60 You near me, and how is it, in this wheel,
Heaven’s sweet symphony no longer sings,
Which filled the air with such divine appeal
In all the wheels below?” “The way you hear,”
He said, “is, like the way you see, earthbound.
If you, a mortal, were touched by the sheer
Perfection of the music, then the sound
Would do to you what one look at a smile
From Beatrice would. Therefore I have come down
The sacred staircase for a little while
70 And just this far, still mantled in my gown
Of light, to welcome you with naught but speech.
Nor was it greater love that sped me on
(For just such love and more is felt by each
And all of those above me: look upon
Their flames) but the high Charity which makes
Us prompt in service of the Counsel’s will
That makes the world, and freely gives and takes,
As you can see.” This while I looked my fill.
“I see indeed,” I said, “my sacred lamp.
80 I see how love, set free, serves in this court
For the fulfilment and the final stamp
Of the Eternal Providence. One thought,
However, still confounds me. Why you? How
Were you cut out, to get this labour done,
From all your fellows?” I can see it now:
The speed with which, before I’d said those last
Words of my speech, the light began to spin,
Its axis the smooth axle of a fast
Mill wheel. And then the love that was within
90 Replied. “Focused on me, a light divine
Pierces this glow in which I am encased.
Its virtue, joined to what I may call mine
Of vision, raises me, from where I’m placed,
So far above myself that the Supreme
Essence I see from where it emanates.
From this the joy that forms my fiery beam,
Since to my sight, by perfect estimates
Of clear view, I make that of my own flame.
But not a soul in Heaven, even the most
100   Alight—no seraph, of whatever name—
Whose eye, of all the highest heavenly host
Is closest fixed on God, will satisfy
Your question. What you ask is far removed
In those high depths of the abyssal sky
Where the Eternal Ordinance has proved
Itself cut off from every vision which
Had been created. In the mortal world,
When you return, make your recounting rich
With this news, so men may no more be hurled
110   Into futility by setting foot
On such a path, to such an end. The mind
Which shines here, smokes on Earth, and therefore put
Your thoughts to just how, down there, it may find
The means by which it ever could achieve
That which it can’t up here.” Checked by his words
That scorned a subject it was time to leave,
I only asked him who he was. “The birds
Can’t soar to where I came from. Thunder claps
Below. Quite near your birthplace, plumb between
120   The shores of Italy, a ridge-line caps
The range with crags sharp as you’ve never seen.
That’s Catria. There in the Apennines,
Beneath the ridge, a hermitage once was
To worship, in all true forms and designs,
Entirely given, praise its only cause.”
So he began again for the third time.
Then more: “There I became, seeing the Lord,
So constant, that with thoughts on the sublime,
I passed through heat and frost, my bed and board
130   Poor stuff, thin scraps eked out with oil
Of olives. Yet I was content. The yield
Of prayer to Heaven from that spot of soil—
A cloister doing duty for a field—
Once ached for harvest. But it now lies waste:
Soon everyone will know. My name when there
Was Peter Damian, and when displaced
And made a cardinal, shame and despair
Led me to give myself another style:
Peter the Sinner, for my lasting care
140   Was purity, and power made it vile.
Corruption ruled us even as we reigned
On our high chairs, low down and out of touch
With those dear peaks which in my mind remained
The fortress of frugality. Not much
Of mortal life was left to me when they,
There in Ravenna, dragged me to that hat
Which gets passed on in a progressive way—
From bad to worse. By now we’re used to that.
There was a time when Peter and Paul both
150   Were hard and barefoot, eating humble food
At ordinary inns, and nothing loth:
But modern shepherds find such rigour crude.
A pope now needs a man each side to prop
Him up, and one before to clear his trail,
With one behind his awesome bulk to stop
His train from dragging. If his legs should fail
To hold him up, he rides: his cloak will flop
Around two beasts with one skin. Patience, can
You stand all this?” And at his cry, I saw
160   More little flames come down as they began,
Wheeling, from step to step, and they were more
Lovely with every spin. They swarmed around
His light, and stopped, and then they cried aloud:
So loudly that down there on our home ground
Nothing could equal it, a shouting cloud
Of clear lights, and I couldn’t understand—
By such sweet thunder deafened and unmanned.