Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 25–27 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 25–27

If ever it should come to pass that my
Long sacred poem—to which Heaven and Earth
For many years, twisting my life awry,
Have set their hand—should prove its proper worth
And overcome the cruelty that keeps
Me far from the fair sheepfold of my birth
Where once I lay down as a new lamb sleeps,
Foe to the wolves that war upon it, then,
Clad in an older voice, a tougher fleece,
10 I’ll come back as a poet. Once again,
Before that font where infants never cease
To come to be baptised, I, just as when
I took that sacrament, will take the crown
Of laurel. There I came into the faith
That makes souls known to God when He looks down,
And now, on that account, the shining wraith
Of Peter runs a circle of renown
Around my brow. At this, a light moved near
From that same circle out of which had come
20 The first fruit of the line Christ left us here
To reign as pope. My lady, brimming sum
Of gladness, said to me: “See, see! Behold
The Baron for whose grave, down there below,
Galicia is visited by bold
And hardy pilgrims.” As the dove will show,
When it alights beside its mate, the love
It holds, and each will bill and coo and go
Circling round the other, so, above,
I saw two great and glorious princes wind
30 Around each other while both praised the feast
They shared up there. Their joy was unconfined,
But when their ceremony of greeting ceased
They both stopped just before me, in such flames
My sight turned blank. And smiling Beatrice said:
“Illustrious living soul, revered St. James,
Who wrote of how our royal chapel spread
Largesse below, make hope resound up here.
You can: for you exemplified it, all
Those times when Jesus showed he held most dear
40 The three of you. Sufficient to recall
That evening in Gethsemane, when you
And John, and Peter, were with Him.” Whereat
The second fire said this: “Adjust your view
Upward. Stop looking at your shoes like that.
Take confidence, for all who climb this high
From mortal life are ripened by our rays.”
Thus reassured, to those hills in the sky,
The two apostles, I addressed the gaze
They had weighed down before. The second light
50 Went on: “Our Emperor, in his Grace,
Wills that you come, before your fatal night,
To meet his noble cohorts face to face
In the inner chamber, so that, having seen
The truth of this court, you will gain in force
To spread abroad the one hope that can mean
True love below, and is its only source.
All the aforesaid being so, tell me
What hope is, how it blossomed in your mind,
And whence it came to you.” But instantly
60 My lady Beatrice, infinitely kind,
Who trained the feathers of my wings to soar
So high, replied for me. “That’s quickly done:
The Church in Arms has no child with a store
Of hope like his. It’s written in the sun
That radiates through all our hosts. Therefore,
He comes from Egypt to Jerusalem,
To see the way it looks, before his war
Is finished. Two more points—and both of them
You raised, not for your own enlightenment,
70 But to find out how he will give report
That it is dear to you, this heaven-sent
Virtue of hope—for him, one would have thought,
Will easily be met, nor need he fear
To seem vainglorious. So, with God’s Grace
His only help, he’ll speak, and you will hear
His answers on these questions in each case.”
Encouraged thus, I, like a pupil who
Answers his master, eager and prepared
To show he knows his subject through and through,
80 Said: “Hope. It is the expectation—spared
From all uncertainty, devoid of doubt—
Of future glory. From the Grace Divine
It springs, although that fact does not leave out
The merit of good works. Hope was made mine
Like light from many stars, but it was first
Distilled in my heart by the singing King
David, in holy numbers so well versed
Our Lord of Hosts appointed him to sing
As sovereign cantor. His divine song goes:
90 ’In you, let them have hope that know your name,’
And this, in my faith, everybody knows.
He made the rain for us. You did the same,
In your Epistle. So I was fulfilled,
To rain your rain on all.” I saw the flame
Flash while I spoke, its living heart instilled
With lightning, sudden and repeated. Then
It breathed: “The love, with which I still burn, for
The virtue that stayed with me even when
They put me to the sword, bids me breathe more
100   To you who so delight in it. Now tell
What hope has promised you.” And I: “The new
And ancient scriptures set forth very well
The goal that all souls may look forward to
That He befriends. And here, are we not there?
Isaiah says that each, in his own land,
Will be twice clothed, in soul and body. Where
Is that but here? We see on every hand
This land is the sweet life, and if we care
To read your brother John, he tells us of
110   A white-robed multitude, the self-same sight
Made yet more definite.” Then, from above,
As soon as I had finished, “That they might
Have hope in you” was heard, and all the choirs
Responded, and among them, one bright light
Shone out, and if the Crab contained such fires,
Winter would have a month without a night,
Lit by that jewel. And as a maiden, glad
To bless the bride, will rise and join the dance,
Not for the reputation to be had
120   Of lightness, but for honour, so my glance
Was caught by that great splendour which had grown
More bright, as it approached the two that wheeled
To that song, matching, to its lilting theme,
Their burning love. He joined them as they reeled,
Singing and dancing, and my lady gazed
Solely on them, a still and silent bride.
“This is the saint the Pelican once raised
Up to His breast to drink blood. The pierced side
Of Christ is that bird’s bosom. This is John,
130   The one that was selected from the cross
So Mary’s motherhood might yet go on,
With a new son to soothe her for her loss.”
So much my lady said, but never moved
The focus of her gaze when she was done,
A fixed intensity already proved
Sufficiently before she had begun.
As one who strives to see—and strains his eyes
Until they lose the power of sight—the sun
When partly its light lives and partly dies
140   Through incomplete eclipse, so, while it spoke,
Had I become before that last fire. “Why
Submit your vision to this dazzling stroke,
Looking for what is not here in the sky
But in the earth, and is earth, and will stay,
With all the other bodies, earth until
Our number tallies, on the final day,
With the eternal aim? Search as you will,
Only two lights, Christ and his mother, wear
The double robe of soul and body still,
150   After ascending to the cloister. Bear
That message when you go back to your world.”
And at these words the flaming circle fell
Silent, together with the sound that swirled
And mingled, given out by that sweet well
Of threefold breath. The same way, to avoid
Fatigue or danger, oars that, till then, struck
The water, will, the whistle once employed,
All stop at once. I could have cursed my luck
When, turning to the sight I so enjoyed,
160   My lady, I saw nothing, though I stood
Beside her, there where all things should be good.
While I was still in fear from my lost sight,
The splendid flame which had extinguished it
Breathed some advice that kept me rapt. “You might,
Until your eyes recover from the fit
Induced by seeing me, find recompense
With speech. To start with, tell me of the aim
Your soul is set on. Be assured your sense
Of sight is just confused. That’s not the same
As being ruined: for your lady, who
10 Guides you through Paradise, has in her look
The power of the hand the Lord sent to
The stricken Saul. One touch was all it took:
The hand of Ananias.” I then: “May
Healing come soon or late as pleases her
Who brings it to the doors that were the way
She entered with the fire. And those doors were
My eyes: the fire, the one with which I burn
Always.” The voice that saved me from my fear
Of sudden dazzle now spoke in its turn,
20 Thus prompting me to greet what I could hear
With further speech. “It’s certain that you must
Sift with a finer sieve and say who trained
Your bow to this mark.” I said: “Here I trust
The philosophic arguments ingrained
In me on Earth, and the authority
Sent down from here. It’s fitting that such love
Should leave its imprint sharply edged on me,
Since good, just by the goodness it’s made of,
Must kindle love as soon as it is known,
30 And all the more the more good it contains.
Towards that Essence, then, in which alone
Such irresistible advantage reigns,
That any good outside is just a glow
Spilled by its radiance, the mind is moved—
Solely by love, and nothing else we know—
Of anyone who sees the truth is proved
On which this logic rests. This argument
Was set forth beyond all doubt, to my mind,
By Aristotle. That was his intent
40 When he said that the heavens—where we find,
Of course, the angels of intelligence—
Were moved by primal love, or the First Cause,
To use his term. Just so, in congruence,
The truthful Author, God, who gave the laws
To Moses, spoke when of Himself He said
‘I’ll make you see all goodness.’ And you, too,
Told me the same when, in your book, I read—
It’s there in Chapter One—of what was true
From when the world was new: that it began
50 As one Word. A sublime announcement! More
Than any other forecast known to man
It told the world below what lay in store
Above: the holy mystery of this place.”
I heard: “On grounds of human reason, then,
And all authorities that match its pace,
The highest of the loves instilled in men
Looks toward God. But are there other cords
That draw you to Him? Name me all the teeth
With which this love that hauls you heavenwards
60 Bites you.” The holy aim at work beneath
These things Christ’s Eagle said was not concealed
From me. Indeed, I marshalled from the start
The thoughts I guessed he wished to be revealed.
“All things,” I said, “whose bite can draw the heart
To God, are unified within the field
Of what joins them. The world, and I, exist.
The death He bore that I might live. The hope
Of Heaven, which, the living facts insist,
Is shared by all believers. This whole scope
70 Of knowledge draws me safely from the sea
Of perverse love and brings me here to this,
The shore of true love and its equity,
The destination of a synthesis.
The Gardener Eternal has bedecked
His bowers with infinities of leaves.
I love them all, for what makes them connect:
The good He gives, the splendour it achieves.”
As I fell silent, a great wave of song
Flooded the heaven, and my lady sang
80 The same sweet melody. She sang along
With all the others, and the welkin rang
To “Holy, holy, holy!” And as sleep
Is broken by a sharp light piercing through
Film after film because a spirit deep
Within the sense of sight will take its cue
To meet the impact, and the awakened one
Shrinks back from what he sees, so unaware
Is he, when the new vision has begun,
Of what it means, until, to help lay bare
90 The truth of it, his judgement comes back, so
The motes in my eyes were all chased away
By Beatrice with her radiance, whose flow
Travelled a thousand miles, and the array
Of lights was clear again, more than before.
I asked her in amazement how it was
The three lights there had been joined by one more.
“These rays,” she answered, “are sent out because
The soul within, the first soul ever made
By the First Power, looks with love upon
100   His Maker.” As a branch whose top is swayed
By a gust of wind, springs, when the gust is gone,
Upright again by natural force, so I,
While she was speaking, was at first amazed,
Then once again my confidence was high,
Spurred by the need to speak with which I blazed.
I said this: “You, the one fruit born full-grown
In ripeness, and of old the father to
All brides—each one of whom could be your own
Daughter or your son’s wife—I beg of you
110   To speak with me. I ask with all respect.
You guess my wish. To have it sooner met,
I do not say it.” Sometimes we detect
A hidden animal by how its fret
To move disturbs its wrappings. Light unchecked,
This primal soul showed through its coverings
How gladly it had come to gratify
My silent wish. It breathed the following things:
“Without your saying so, I can descry
Your wish more clearly than your own sight brings
120   Your utmost certainties to mind, for I
See it through God, the truthful mirror which
Reflects all else though not reflected by
A single thing that serves to make it rich.
You want to hear how much time I have shared
With God since He first put me in this place
Your lady brought you to, so well prepared
To see its splendour, by a steep staircase.
You want to know how long my eyes were bared
To its delight, and also the real spur
130   Of God’s great wrath. What was it, the first sin?
What language did I shape and use? These were
Your thoughts, my son. Hear me as I begin
To answer them. The tasting of the tree
Was not, alone, the cause of my exile
For so long. No, we crossed a boundary
Of pride, for that fell serpent had the guile
To say: ‘The day you eat this, you will be
Like Gods.’ In that place where your lady went
For Virgil, I missed seeing the sun’s trail
140   Forty-three hundred times after I spent
More than nine hundred years alive to see it sail
From point to point, lighting the Zodiac
In its due order, which can never fail
To be fulfilled, for always it comes back
While men can see. As for the tongue I spoke,
It died before the race of Nimrod gave
Their minds to the Babelic tower that broke:
A project no amount of hope could save,
For nothing human reason makes endures
150   Forever, since all human tastes must change
According to the stars. Nature ensures
That men shall speak, but neither is it strange
That how they speak will switch this way and that
As human pleasure—nature’s gift—dictates.
Even before I went down to Hell’s vat
Of pain, the Good Supreme that radiates
The endless joy that swathes me now was named,
On Earth, in several ways, and that was fit,
For human usage can no more be blamed
160   For changing than a leaf, which does not sit
Forever on its branch, but falls and grows
Again, another one to match the last.
In Eden, on the soaring mount that knows
No hindrance as it rises unsurpassed
Out of the sea, I lived, first pure and then
Ridden with guilt, from dawn till just past noon—
For seven hours. The very moment when
The sun changed quadrants—it was all too soon—
I left that garden, knowing shame and fear,
170   Then exile, death, and Hell. Now, I am here.”
“Glory,” all paradise began to sing,
“To Father, Son and Holy Ghost!” The sweet
Song held me spellbound. I saw everything
In all creation smile. My joy complete
Came into me by hearing and by sight.
The thrill! The gladness, more than I can say!
The life fulfilled with love, peace and delight!
The riches held secure and there to stay,
More than the soul could crave, try as it might!
10 Before me the four torches stood aflame.
The one that had come first grew still more bright,
Though in its aspect it became the same
As Jupiter would be if it and Mars
Were birds exchanging plumage. Providence,
Which here rules time and duty and the stars,
Reduced the holy chorus to silence
On every side, whereat I heard: “If I
Change colour, do not marvel. While I speak
You’ll see them all do that, and here is why:
20 It is the way that shame will flood a cheek.
He that on Earth usurps my place, my place,
My place, which now is empty in the view
Of God’s Son, turns my tomb to a disgrace,
A sewer of blood and muck, a comfort to
The twisted one who fell from here, and now,
Down there, lives well.” I saw the colour of
The sunrise and the sunset clouds endow
With earthly red light all the world above,
And as a woman, chaste and self-assured
30 In virtue, hearing of another’s fault,
Flushes with shame, so I saw my adored
Beatrice change semblance in the same assault
Of anger. Just so, all white light was spent,
I do believe, when Heaven looked down upon
The agony of the Omnipotent
And went into eclipse. Their joy was gone.
Peter continued, in an altered voice
To match his altered looks. “Our Holy Church,
The Bride of Christ, was nurtured in the choice
40 Of martyrdom by men who did not search
For gold. Linus and Cletus shed their tears
And blood to gain this life. And there were more—
Sixtus and Pius, in those early years,
Urban, Calixtus, all our noble store
Of saints—of whom none meant that there should sit,
On our successor’s right hand, just one part
Of Christ’s flock, or that he should find it fit
To place the rest, by his divisive art,
On his left hand, Guelph split from Ghibelline;
50 Nor that the keys that were consigned to me
Should be his battle standard, meant to mean
His war on the Colonna just might be
A holy one, though they were Christians all;
Nor that my head, carved on the papal seal,
Should lend prestige to an indulgence stall,
As if I gave men leave to cheat and steal—
For which I often turn red and flash fire.
From here above I see the ravening
Wolves dressed as shepherds hunt at their desire
60 Through all the pastures. Why, why do you cling
To sleep, dear heavenly defence? Two popes—
Clement of Gascony, John of Cahors—
Would drink our blood. Ah, founder of our hopes
And fair beginnings, tell me for what cause
You fall so far, to such a paltry end!
Yet Providence, which gave us Scipio
To conquer Hannibal and so extend
Rome’s glory to the world, will soon, I know,
Bring help. And you, my son, when you return
70 To your mortality down there below,
Must tell them of the rage with which I burn.
I show it. So should you.” Just as our air,
In winter, with the sun in Capricorn,
Is flaked with frozen vapours, so, up there,
I saw—but falling upwards—flakes adorn
The ether in their triumph, all of those
Who had been with us, and I watched them climb
Until the distance brought it to a close,
That sight, though I had watched them all the time,
80 And not once looked away. My lady, then,
Seeing me freed from gazing up, said “Cast
Your sight down, now. Look at your path again
And see how far you’ve travelled since the last
Time that you looked.” I saw how, since then, I
Had moved through all the arc—Jerusalem
To Spain—swept by the stars of Gemini,
So there, beyond Cadiz, glittered the hem
Of ocean on which, sailing out to die,
Ulysses in his madness stitched his track,
90 And over there the sun had set on Crete,
Where Jupiter the bull took, on his back,
Europa as a burden fair and sweet.
All this I saw, and might have seen yet more,
But underneath my feet the sun did not
Stand still: across that little threshing floor
The eastern edge moved west, the bright and hot
Becoming dark and cool. The loving mind
That woos my lady always, without cease,
Was burning to have my eyes reassigned
100   Again to her, the object of release
For all my joy. If Nature ever made
In human flesh, or art in portraiture,
Baits for the eyes so that the mind be swayed
Until possessed, all those together were
As nothing when compared to the divine
Delight that shone upon me when I turned
To see her smiling face look into mine
With holy grace. The impulse that I earned
From that glance pulled me free from the fair nest
110   Of Leda, mother of the Twins, and sent
Me straight to where there spun, without arrest,
That heaven whose sheer speed is never spent,
The Crystalline, the sphere that sets the test
For all the others. High or low, its parts
Are so alike I couldn’t tell which one
She chose to put me in, but with her arts
Of divination, how my thoughts had run
Was plain to her. With God’s joy in her face
She smiled and spoke. “From here, the universe
120   Begins, unmoving only in this place,
The launching point from which the rays disperse
Of love, which the Divine Mind has instilled
Just here. Only from here the sweet rain falls
Of virtue. A still centre He has willed,
And light and love in circles He installs
Around it, as it does with lesser spheres,
But of this one sphere’s girdling, only He
Is the Intelligence. The light, the years,
The spin of all the others come to be
130   By measure from this one, as two and five
Come out of ten, and how time has its roots
In this one’s plot, and theirs can come alive
Only as leaves because it puts out shoots,
Might now be clear to you. Covetousness!
You plunge the mortals so deep that none has
The power to lift his drowned eyes. None the less,
Will blossoms within men, but even as
It does, like sound plums in unending rain,
They wither. Faith and innocence are found
140   Only in little children, and remain
Only while cheeks are bare. Both things are bound
To flee. For one who lisps may keep the fasts,
But when his tongue is free, eats everything
In any month: that first pledge never lasts.
Another, lisping too, will gladly bring
Love to his mother, lend her views respect,
But when his speech is perfect he will ache
To see her buried. Just so, the unflecked
White skin of innocence is sure to take
150   A dark tone at the first sight of the sun’s
Fair daughter Circe, she that represents
The pleasures of the world. Since no one runs
The Earth, to be astonished makes no sense:
The human family strays. But even though,
Because our calendar has made the year
Too long by an hour’s quarter, as you know,
And January must gradually appear
A little later in the season, still,
Before it shifts completely—call the span
160   Less than a thousand years—for sure there will
Be such a shining on the world of man
From these realms on the heights, that the event
So long awaited must turn all the ships
From prow to stern, the fleet again be sent
On its true course, and flowers the bee sips
Will be succeeded by good fruit, as they
Should be. Not now, but soon. Somehow. Some day.”