Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 22–24 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 22–24

Still stunned, I turned back to my guide, just as
A child, when scared, will run back to the place
Where confidence resides, the voice that has
The gift of reassurance, the one face
Of comfort for a pale and breathless boy—
His mother. She said “How can you not tell
You are in holy Heaven? All the joy,
All that is done here comes from the true well
Of zeal, and so you’ve seen the truth appear
10 Of how that song, and my smile, would have stirred
Your brains, because the truth was in that cry
Which so much moved you, and if you had heard
And understood the prayers within it, why,
You’d know already how the prelates will
Suffer a fate you’ll see before you die.
Up here, God’s vengeful sword does not fulfil
Its task too early or too late, except
As it might seem to him who, with desire
Or fear, awaits the blow, the promise kept.
20 But turn now to the others in the choir
That raised the shout, and if you aim your gaze
As I say, countless spirits you will see.”
I did her bidding and I saw the rays,
Criss-crossing, of a multiplicity
Of little spheres, a hundred of them, all
Made still more beautiful by their shared beams—
A light-stream interplay, a mirror hall
For fireflies. I stood as one who deems
The prick of wishing must be checked, for fear
30 He’ll seem presumptuous if he should pose
A question. So it was that there drew near
The largest and most lustrous of all those
Shivering pearls, intent that I should hear
My inner question answered. Then the light
Unfolded its own nature from within.
“If you could only share my power of sight
You’d see the love we burn in, and begin
To say what’s on your mind, but since you might
Be slowed down on your high path if you wait,
40 I’ll answer now the thought you closely guard.
The mountain where Cassino has its gate
Was once thronged, on its summit high and hard,
By people both deluded and deceived,
And I was first to bring the name up there
Of Him who brought to Earth, to be believed,
The truth that sublimates us; and so fair
A grace shone down upon me that I drew
The nearby towns away from their old cult
Of worshipping Apollo as the true
50 And only God, in which they would exult
As once the whole world did. These other flames
Were all contemplatives, fired by that heat
That brings forth holy flowers and fruit. Their names?
Macarius, and all my brothers. Meet
The ones who kept their feet and steadfast hearts
Within the cloister.” I to him: “You’ve shown
Affection in your speech, and all the arts
Of kindness, and your fires reflect your tone.
My confidence expands just as the sun
60 Unfolds the rose into its fullest bloom.
And so I ask you—if it may be done
To grant the gift, and I do not assume
Too much in asking—that I may for one
Moment see you with face unveiled.” And he:
“Brother, your high desire shall be fulfilled
Above in the last sphere: for you, and me,
The end point of all wishes. All are stilled,
Our long desires. They’re perfect, ripe and whole.
Up there alone each part is what it was
70 Always, for that place turns around no pole:
It’s not in space. You see, then, by what cause
Our ladder, going up to it, must climb
Out of your sight. Jacob the patriarch
Saw to the hidden top in the sublime
And saw it packed with angels. That high mark
None lifts a foot to reach now, and my Rule
Merely wastes paper. Those walls that were once
An abbey are now thieves’ dens. A whole school
Of cowls are sacks of spoiled grain. Nothing affronts
80 God’s pleasure—even usury at its worst—
So much as when the monks skim from the flow
Of income from the faithful. Such a thirst
Turns fruit to folly. Surely they must know
All the Church has belongs to those who seek
In God’s name, not for kin or cronies. So
Soft is the flesh of mortals, and so weak,
A good beginning made below does not
Last from the oak’s birth to the first acorn.
No silver and no gold had Peter got
90 When he began his order. Mine was born
With prayer and fasting. Francis founded his
With mere humility. And if you look
At what each was, and then at what it is—
Where it has strayed from its first open book—
You’ll see white turning dark. Nevertheless
The Red Sea gaped, and Jordan was rolled back
By God’s will to annul the helplessness
Of Israel’s children on the long, hard track
That led to safety. Those were strange events
100   Down there, but here such succour’s everywhere
And nothing marvellous. Common, in a sense.”
Having thus spoken, Benedict left us there,
Withdrawing to his company, which drew
Together, pressing close. Then they were swept
Quickly above as if a whirlwind blew.
With just a sign, my dear sweet lady kept
Me climbing after them, so much her force
Conquered my nature, and here in the world
Where natural law will always take its course
110   To govern how we climb, none has been hurled
Aloft as I was, with so swift a flight.
Reader, as I hope one day to return
To that pure triumph for which, in the night,
I beat my breast until my knuckles burn
With sorrow for my sins, you could not snatch
The finger from the fire that you pushed in
More quickly than the sign that tries to catch
The Bull, which is the Twins—wherein begin
Learning and intellect—was there before
120   My eyes, and then around me. Stars in flame
With glory, light filled to its pregnant core
With power that drives what I have to my name
Of genius, with you the sun, each May,
Arises, father of each mortal born,
And so sets. Twins, it was when you held sway
That I first tasted the sweet Tuscan dawn,
And later on, when I was granted grace
To enter the high wheel that bears you round,
Your region was my designated place.
130   To you my soul now utters the profound
Sigh of devotion. May the strength be mine
To make the big step that I now must face
Of being drawn towards itself. The sign
Could not be more propitious. “You’re so near
To final blessedness,” Beatrice began,
“That you must have your eyes both keen and clear,
And so, before you go—and now you can—
Yet further into it, look down and see
How much already of the universe
140   Is underneath your feet, put there by me,
So that your heart be ready to disburse—
when you meet the Host Triumphant, finally—
Your full joy, as it comes rejoicing through
This rounded ether.” With my sight I went
Back down through all the seven spheres anew
And saw the globe, the start of my ascent,
And smiled at its pipsqueak significance.
Whoever has his mind on other things
Can be called just: it’s scarcely worth a glance.
150   I call his judgement best who never clings
To its importance, rating it the least
Of realms. I saw the moon’s clean other side:
Diana with her lovely glow increased,
Being without the shadow from which I’d
Believed her, once, to be both rare and dense.
I saw the Sun, son of Hyperion,
In full flame, unrelentingly intense,
And Maia’s daughter, Mercury, sailed on;
And Venus, too, Dione’s daughter, moved
160   Close to the sun. Their circles copied his.
All of the spheres were there. I saw it proved
From this, that Jupiter’s condition is
Forever to create a tempered blend:
The heat of his son Mars mixed with the cold
Of Saturn, still his father. Without end
The seven change position as they hold
Their places. I could see this, and their size
And speed, and all their distances between
Each other. And this paltry world we prize,
170   This little threshing floor where we have been
Always so fierce, was made plain from its hills
To river mouths, while I was wheeling there
With those eternal Twins. They turned like mills,
And I with them, the universe laid bare.
And then my eyes met hers, my lady fair.
Just as the bird that in the branches sings—
Branches she loves, the source of her delight,
The nest of her sweet brood with flightless wings
Where she has sat in vigil through the night
That hides things from us—stays put till time brings
The moment, blessed if only for their sake,
When, on the open spray, she’ll once more see
Their longed-for looks, and find the food to make
Them grow, the work she welcomes heartily,
10 Singing, with all her wishes wide awake,
Until dawn breaks, just so my lady stood
Erect, alert, and turned towards that part,
The zenith, where the sun slows. Thus I could
See the suspense and longing in her heart,
And I became as one moved by desire,
Hope satisfied. But the interval was short
Between expectancy and the first fire
That set the sky alight beyond all thought:
First clear, then bright, then blazing. Beatrice said:
20 “Behold the hosts of Christ in triumph! Hail
The blessed, the fruit that has been harvested
From all the wheeling spheres which never fail
To give the striving soul its just reward!”
It seemed to me her face was all in flame,
Her eyes too full of gladness to afford
My words the chance to give her joy a name.
As, in clear nights that show us the full moon,
Diana smiles among the nymphs that dance
Forever, always decking, late and soon,
30 The sky through all its depths, just so my glance
Was drawn beyond a thousand lamps to meet
A sun which kindled all of them the way
Ours does with every pinpoint that might meet
Our eyes when we look up at the display
Of stars, and, streaming through the living light,
The vital substance which is Christ was more
Than my eyes—for it was so very bright—
Could bear. Ah, Beatrice! More now than before
My dear, sweet guide! “What overwhelms you now,”
40 She said, “is power beyond all defence.
Here is the might and wisdom that knew how
To open up the roads through the immense
Distance dividing Heaven from the Earth,
An age-old dream.” As fire breaks from a cloud,
Swelling until it seeks a path for birth,
And falls towards the ground although endowed
Not with that nature, my mind, at that feast
Grown greater, left itself, and what became
Of it, it can’t recall now in the least.
50 “Open your eyes and see me not in name
But as I am,” she said. “You’ve gained the strength,
From what you’ve seen, to bear my smile.” As he
Awaking from a dream may seek at length
In vain to recollect it, so with me,
Hearing this invitation. All the past
Is in a book, and how my thanks were great
Can never now, from this day to the last,
Be blotted out. Such was my blessed state,
If all the tongues that Polyhymnia
60 And her Muse sisters fed with milk so sweet
Should sound to aid me now, I would by far—
A thousandfold—fall short of means to meet
The truth in singing of the holy smile
And how that smile lit up the holy face,
And so, to picture heaven in fit style,
This sacred poem, as one leaps the place
That breaks one’s path, must cease a little while
To match the facts. But he who gives due heed
To this theme’s weight, the human shoulder frail
70 That’s burdened with it like a trembling reed,
Will blame me less if I appear to fail.
No easy passage for a little barque,
This is a sea a daring prow must cleave,
Steered by a pilot who would make his mark
With no thought for his comfort, no reprieve.
“Why does my face beguile you,” Beatrice said,
“So much you do not turn towards the fair
Garden that flowers in the sunrays shed
By Christ? You’ll find his mother Mary there,
80 The Sacred Rose, the Holy Word made flesh.
There are the lilies, the apostles who
Gave out the fragrance that made sweet and fresh
The good path. This is what you’re coming to.”
She spoke, and I, so keen for her advice,
Struggled to fix my eyelids on the task,
Weak though they were. But it was worth the price.
As I once saw a field of flowers bask
In sunlight streaming through a broken cloud—
Saw them with shaded eyes—so now I saw
90 Whole hosts of splendour, crowd on sainted crowd,
Flash in the brilliant light that seemed to pour
From on high, though I couldn’t see its source.
Ah, gracious might that sets your stamp upon
Them all, you climbed to grant scope by your force
To eyes that had no strength for you. As on
The very greatest of those fires I gazed—
Mary, I mean—the name of that fair flower
Which I invoke each morning to be praised,
And in the evening too, took all the power
100   Of my mind to behold it as it blazed,
And when I pictured the intense extent
And quality of that star in my eyes—
The star surpassing all those who were sent
To be up there, as she in worldly guise
Surpassed all those below—I saw a brand
Descend the sky, and, once it had come down,
Draw circles which I came to understand
As being in the likeness of a crown
Spun for her lovely head. Down here below,
110   Whatever melody, though it be sweet
Enough to draw the soul into its flow
And drown there with all earthly dreams complete,
Would seem, compared to that lyre’s perfect sound
Like thunder in the clouds. But why compare?
This was the melody with which was crowned
The sapphire that made sapphire all the air,
The bright blue sky. “I spin angelic love
Around the joy supreme,” sang Gabriel,
“Which breathes from that womb, seeded from above,
120   That sheltered what we all desired so well,
Both men and angels; and this I will do
Lady of Heaven, till you reach your Son,
Ascending in His path until you, too,
Are in the highest sphere. This will be done.”
And so the circling song came to a close,
And all the other lights sang out as one
The name of Mary. Then, as she arose,
The royal cloak, the Primum Mobile,
The sphere that burns the most of any sphere
130   That spins around the world, was far away,
So far its inner rim did not appear
To my sight even yet—which is to say
The breath of God and His works, far from near,
Seemed nowhere—so I could not follow her
With my eyes as she soared towards the seed:
Her light-crowned flame had left us where we were.
Just as an infant, having slaked its need
For milk, still stretches out its little arms
To mother, while its inner impulse flares
140   To outward flame in its beseeching palms,
So these white radiant beings reached above
Themselves with all their fire, and it was plain
To me how each one felt the deepest love
For Mary as they sang the sweet refrain
Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. So
Sweet was their song that it is with me still
As always. Ah, how great the goodly store
In these rich gatherers! They had the will
To sow the seed when they were here before,
150   And there they live in all the wealth they earned,
Rejoicing in it, everything they won
With tears in their long exile, where they spurned
The gold of Babylon. Under the Son
Of God and Mary, Peter reigns in all
The triumph of his victory. The school
Of all the saints whose names we might recall
From either testament approves his rule,
Of which the keys to glory are the sign
His office is eternal and divine.
Then Beatrice said: “O fellowship elect
To that great supper of the blessed Lamb
Who feeds you so that no desire is checked
But always satisfied, know that I am
In charge of this man who by God’s grace has
Foretaste of that which from your table falls
Before the fatal time appointed as
His day of death. Give heed to how he calls
In hunger without measure. Give him dew,
10 If only a few drops, you that may drink
Deep from the fountain he aspires to,
That flow of which he cannot cease to think.”
And then I saw the happy spirits flock
In circles on fixed poles, flaring as bright
As comets, and, as wheels inside a clock
Revolve so that it seems the first wheel might
Be stock-still while the last wheel seems to fly,
Just so these choirs at different speeds, some slow,
Some quick, expressed the same resolve that I
20 Should gauge the wealth that they had put on show.
And from the richest one, I saw shoot out
A fire so joyful that none other shone
More brightly, and it wheeled three times about
My Beatrice with a song—I can’t go on—
Divine beyond what my words can evoke,
And so my pen lifts, all its powers gone,
And I write nothing suitable. This cloak
Had folds too subtle for my pigments. Bold
Colours cannot paint shades that lie within
30 The indentations fine draped cloth may hold,
And this flame’s plainsong was no less rich in
Its intricacy. The song’s words went so:
“My holy sister who has prayed to us
So piously, it’s by the melting glow
Of your affection you detach me thus
From that fair circle.” She then: “O
Eternal light of the great soul to whom
Our Lord entrusted the twin holy keys
Which he brought down to give us the full bloom
40 Of all this glad amazement, may it please
You now to test this man with points both light
And grave, as you see fit, pertaining to
The faith by which you walked, at your full height,
Upon the water. Whether his love is true
And whether his hopes and his beliefs are right—
These outcomes have all been foretold by you,
There where all things are seen depicted. Yet,
Since in this kingdom citizens are made
By the true faith, let’s try not to forget
50 The higher justice stands to be betrayed
Should he not speak of this faith, which will be,
By his words, glorified.” In the same way
The bachelor, when seeking a degree
By viva voce, guards what he will say
Until the master puts the question he
Will argue but not settle, so I armed
Myself with all my reasons while she spoke,
To be prepared and therefore less alarmed
By such a questioner, and not to choke
60 Through awe of his profession. “Christian, speak.
Declare yourself, and tell me what faith is.”
At this I lifted up my brow to seek
The light which breathed these sudden words of his,
Then turned to Beatrice, who quickly signed
To me with one look that I should present
The waters of my spring. “May I now find,”
I said, “The proper words of argument
To fit my thoughts, by that same grace that grants
Me leave to make confession to the Chief
70 Centurion, flag-bearer and first lance.”
I went on: “As that pen of true belief
Held by your dearest saintly brother Paul
(He who helped you in choosing the right track
For Rome) once wrote, faith is the stuff of all
Things hoped for, and, of all things that we lack
The sight of, is the evidence: and this
I take to be its essence.” Then I heard:
“You are correct in your analysis
If you grasp why Paul placed faith, the key word,
80 First among actual things and only next
Among the arguments.” And I: “The deep
Occurrences, to me made a clear text
Up here, to eyes below so tightly keep
Their secrets, that belief alone suggests
They might exist. On that, high hope is based,
Which therefore, in the Scripture which attests
To it, takes substance. As we find it placed
In Testaments both Old and New, from those
We take belief, and from belief we must
90 Then reason, seeing no more. So I close
By saying that faith holds, in sacred trust,
The character of evidence.” “Well done,”
I heard. “If all the doctrine there below
Were understood so well by everyone
Concerned, the sophists, proud of what they know,
Or think they know, would have less elbow room
For empty cleverness.” Thus breathed the flame
Of kindled love. Then more: “We can assume
We have well weighed the coin that bears the name
100   Of faith, whose alloy, too, we have assayed.
Now tell me if you have it in your purse.”
And I: “I have indeed, and it’s high grade.
So bright and round that I, too, can be terse.
It’s fresh out of the mint.” And from the heart
Of that deep shining light came this: “This jewel,
Precious with every value in each part,
How did it get to you? Give me the rule.”
And I: “The rain the Holy Spirit pours
In floods from those twin parchments Old and New:
110   It forms a syllogism which implores
Me always to believe, and so I do,
Since every other demonstration weighs
As nothing beside that one.” He then: “Why
Do you hold what the Old and New Books say
For Holy Word that you cannot deny
Settles all arguments?” I: “For the way
The works that followed proved it to be fact:
The miracles, which nature could not make
With heated iron or struck anvil. Backed
120   By such great things, it could be no mistake.”
And he: “Now tell me how you are assured
These works occurred. Surely the very thing
That must be proved is all that can afford
A proof for them.” I said: “To this I bring
The words of Augustine, who said the world
Needed no miracle for it to be
Won to Christ’s way, and from that fact unfurled
The greatest miracle we’ll ever see,
Such that all others put together yield
130   Less than a hundredth part of it. For you
When you were poor and fasting, took the field
To sow the good vine, now degraded to
A thorn. But still with you the pact was sealed:
The written promise was proved true.” That said,
The high and holy court, through every sphere,
Rang with the song that they sing overhead:
“We praise you, God.” And then the Baron (here
I use the earthly title) who had brought
Me thus from branch to branch in my defence
140   Of how my deepest faith had formed my thought,
Began again: “God’s grace, which, in a sense,
Is in love with your mind, has until now
Opened your lips in ways that I endorse,
But finally we reach the highest bough
Of this tree, the completion of the course:
What is it you believe? And tell me how
It came to you. Where from?” And I replied:
“O Holy Father, you that outstripped John,
Whose young feet got there first, to go inside
150   The sepulchre—because he waved you on,
You being senior—you ask the form,
The essence, of my willing faith. As well,
You ask the source of it.” Then I grew warm
To that theme. “I’ve a simple truth to tell.
In one sole and eternal God I place
All my belief, the God who reigns unmoved,
Yet moving all of Heaven with the grace
Of His love and desire. The fact is proved
By physical and metaphysical
160   Proofs I possess, but also by the rain
Of truth that never falters in its fall,
Sent down to us, as spring showers to the grain,
Through Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,
The Gospels and through you, the ones that wrote
The vital extra texts. His burning arms
Embraced you: you were holy. On a note
Less simple, but essential, I believe
In three eternal persons, and all these
One essence, three in one that interweave
170   Oneness with threeness so the whole agrees
With singular and plural, ‘is’ and ‘are.’
Of this deep, sacred state of which I speak,
The teaching of the Gospel is by far
The stamp that never stops. There you may seek
The start and spark which broadens to a star
Shining within me.” As a master hears
His servant out who has brought pleasant news,
Then, when he’s fallen silent, gladly nears
The man and gives him the embrace we use
180   With friends, so now the apostolic light,
To which I’d spoken at his firm request,
Encircled me three times in joyful flight—
Because, having survived the spoken test,
I had no more to say, which pleased him best.