Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 28–30 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 28–30

The truth about the life poor mortals lead
Today, had been expounded by the one
Who turns my mind to paradise. I need
Say only how, after the thing was done,
I was like someone who, lit from behind,
Can see, before he thinks, a torch’s flame
There in the mirror, and turns round to find
If glass tells truth, and finds both flames the same,
Agreeing with each other like a song
10 With its own measure. So, my memory
Records, I did then, gazing deep and long
Once more into the fair eyes that for me
Were love’s noose, fashioned for my capture. Then
I turned again, and my eyes were met by
What must appear to the observer when
He looks hard at the spinning in the sky
Of this sphere. There I saw a point that so
Streamed sharp light that the eyes on which it burns
Must close, pierced by its force. No star we know,
20 Even the least from which our sight returns,
But would not seem a moon if put beside
That brilliant point like star with star combined.
And as a halo closely will abide
With that light which supplies it but refined
Through air most dense, so, maybe just as near,
About this point a fiery circle wheeled
So fast that even that most rapid sphere
Which girds the world would have been forced to yield
The palm for speed. The Primum Mobile,
30 I mean, was slow compared to this, and this
Was circled by another the same way,
And then both by a third. Analysis
Revealed a fourth and fifth, and then two more,
The seventh spreading so wide that Iris,
The rainbow, Juno’s herald, would be sore
Put to contain it even if complete:
And then there were two more again. Yes, nine
All told, and each in movement the less fleet
The more removed it was, in this design,
40 From that first one, flame clear beyond compare,
Because, I thought, less distant from the pure
Initial spark, and thus with the best share
Of all the truth it held. Keen but unsure
I must have seemed, because my lady said:
“The heavens and all nature both depend
From that point. Know the inner ring is sped
So swiftly by the burning, without end,
Of love.” And I said: “If the universe
Were set out in the order that these wheels
50 Conform to, then the clean match would disperse
My doubts about the scheme your speech reveals
As heavenly. But in the world of sense
We can’t help seeing that the circles are
Always the more divine the further hence
From our own centre, set from near to far
The other way around. If my desire
May gain its end in this most wonderful
Temple of angels—love and light on fire
Its only bounds—then I must hear it all
60 About the reasons that the pattern and
Its copy do not follow the same plan,
Since by myself I strive to understand
Without result.” My lady then began
“Nothing to wonder at, that such a knot
Defies your fingers, since it has grown hard
From being left alone.” She went on: “What
I tell you about next in this regard
You should take, if you would be satisfied,
As whetstone for your wit. Material spheres
70 Are large and small according to the tide
Of virtue, as it spreads out and inheres
Through all their parts. An excellence more great
Makes greater blessedness, which in its turn
Must take a greater body if the state
Of all its parts—just look and you will learn—
Is equal in perfection. Thus we see
That this sphere, swept along with all the rest
Of what exists, responds in symmetry
At all points to the circle that loves best
80 And knows most. So if you apply your gauge
Not to the seeming, but the virtue, of
The spirits that you still think, at this stage,
Are circles, you will see how, here above,
Each heaven marvellously corresponds
With its Intelligence, the small with less,
The great with more, united by their bonds.”
Just as the air is cleared of all distress,
Its vault serene and shining, by the breeze
From the northeast, as Boreas puffs his cheek
90 Most mild, and yet the thickest fog with ease
He thins and drives away, its grip gown weak,
Until the blue sky smiles on us again
With all its lovely pageant, so it was
With me, through what my lady granted then:
In heaven a star shone, and all because,
Her answer clear, the truth was plain. And when
She paused in speech, the circles sparkled just
As boiling iron sparkles, and each spark
Stayed with its fire. And at this point I must
100   Have recourse to the Persian patriarch
Of chess, who asked his king for pay in corn,
One grain for the first square, two for the next,
Four for the third. A hill of seed was born
From just one chessboard, and the king was vexed,
But all that mighty number would not meet
By many thousands this great multitude
Of lights. From choir to choir I heard the sweet
Hosanna sung to that fixed point, imbued
With power that holds them there, and always will,
110   Where they have always been. And she then said
(Aware that, deep down, I was wondering still),
“The first two circles showed you the life led
By Seraphim and Cherubim, held in
Their course by bonds of love, and therefore sped
Swiftly to all the likeness they can win
To that point. By the measure that their view
Exalts them, they do so. Beyond these rings
The spirits circle that are known to you
As Thrones of Sacred Aspect. By three things,
120   Therefore, the primal triad is made whole.
Know also that they all take great delight
In how their vision pierces to the soul
Of truth, in which all minds enjoy the right
To find rest. And from this it may be seen
That blessedness comes from the power of sight
And not of love, which follows. Here I mean
That merit, which goodwill and grace beget,
Measures their vision. That’s the process, grade
By grade. The second triad to be set
130   And flower in this spring which has been made
Eternal, with no Ram at night to serve
Autumn and winter, sings without a pause
Hosanna, as three ranks pursue their curve
In bliss, and form the triad. By the laws
Of hierarchy the next orders come:
First the Dominions, then the Virtues, then
The Powers. Next to last in this great sum
Of circles—three times three, one less than ten,
And each one by the next in girth surpassed—
140   The Principalities revolve, ringed round
By the Archangels, and, not least, but last,
The Angels play their games on holy ground
Of open sky. And all the orders gaze
Above, and so prevail below, that all
Draw, and are drawn, to God. In early days,
When Paul still lived, I’m sure you will recall,
His convert Dionysius worked out
The plan in every detail, large and small,
With zeal presaging what I’ve talked about,
150   Though later Gregory thought otherwise,
And when he got here he was forced to smile
At what he’d said by that which met his eyes.
But if one mortal saw it well the while
He was on Earth, there’s no cause for surprise,
For Paul had told him of it. Paul was here
Before his death, and saw all this and more
Of Heaven’s truth, so he knew how to steer
The mind of Dionysius to shore
Across the sea of doubt. Now what Paul knew
160   While he yet breathed is known again, by you.”
When, at the time of our spring equinox,
The Sun, Apollo, rises in the Ram
And the Moon, Diana of the lovely locks,
Is sinking in the Scales—when, to the gram,
The two are balanced, so that each one wears
The world’s horizon for a belt, both west
And east, loads that the zenith bears—
For just the time between that point of rest
And when the two of them change hemisphere,
10 Unbalanced from that girdle, Beatrice kept
Her silence, smiling with her face a sheer
Cascade of light, and on the point that swept
My senses from me, her own gaze was fixed.
“I tell,” she said, “I don’t ask, what you ache
To hear, for I can see it there unmixed
Where all dimensions meet with no mistake
And every time and place is centred. Wrong
To think that He might for Himself gain good:
That cannot be, in short term or in long.
20 Right, though, to think that His great splendour could
Shine back and say, from His eternity,
‘I am.’ Beyond time and all other bounds,
The everlasting love was pleased to be
Revealed as who He is, one who astounds
With all His new loves. Nor did He, before,
Lie still and sleeping, as we now might say.
‘Before’ and ‘after’ were mere words that bore
No meaning, not until He made our day,
Moving upon the waters. Substance, form,
30 Both separate and united, then could come
To life, three arrows flying in a swarm
From one bow with three strings: a life, in sum,
Without flaw. As a ray shines into glass,
Amber, or crystal so that from the time
Of its arrival no more time will pass
Before it is complete, just so the prime
Threefold creation happened in a flash,
Sent by its Lord in one burst with no sign
Of demarcation, one thing with no clash
40 Of lesser things or even their outline:
Whole from the start. And with that, there began
Order, the frame created and ordained
For all the angels, summit of the plan
Which is the universe. From them it gained
Pure Act, and the pure Potency was placed
Lowest, and in between these purities
The bond that knows no bounds was interspaced
To join them. Your Jerome wrote fantasies
About the course of ages that it took
50 To make the angels, the world not made yet:
But what I say comes from another book,
A truth on many pages firmly set
In writing by the scribes whose guiding voice
Outranks Jerome. I mean the Holy Ghost.
Just read it carefully and make your choice,
Helped by the written source that matters most,
Although your reason, too, to some extent
Should see it, for no logic can allow
The heavenly movers ever could be meant
60 To wait for their perfection. You know now
The where and when of their creation, and
On top of those two things you know the how:
The three flames of what you would understand
Are thus already spent. Then, sooner still
Than you might count to twenty, a small part
Of that angelic total took ill will
To your world, but the rest stayed with this art
That you see now, and circled in delight,
Never to leave. The signal for the fall?
70 The accursed pride of him who, in the night,
You saw imprisoned down there, crushed by all
The world’s weights. But the angels you see here
Humbly acknowledged that they had been made
By Goodness, fit, in being kept so near,
To know so much, and to the highest grade
Their virtue was exalted by God’s grace
And their own merit, so that they have full
And firm minds. Nor should you allow a place
For doubt, but be convinced, immovable,
80 On this point: it’s a merit to receive
Such grace, by just as much as the heart stays
Open to let it in. Only believe
My words, and you’re at liberty to gaze
Without my help on this community.
But since your schools on earth say that the sort
Of angels is to have a memory,
To understand and will—all this is taught—
I shall go on, that you might clearly see
The truth, which is, down there, so sadly fraught
90 With ambiguity. Not since the day
That they were made glad by God’s face from which
Nothing is hidden, have they turned away
Their eyes from it, so nothing new is rich
Enough to reach their sight. They have no need
To recollect the past by any scheme
Of abstract thought. Down there where mere men breed
And die, while they’re awake they only dream,
Believing they speak truth or that they lie,
But in that second thing’s the greater blame
100   And shame. With no one path to codify
Your thinking, you get caught up in the game
Of showing off, and even this is borne,
Up here, with far less ire than when divine
Scripture is slighted or misread to spawn
Perversion. There is never any sign
Of thought among you of the blood it cost
To sow the world with it, or how he earns
Respect who comes to it with all pride lost.
Each flaunts originality, each burns
110   To put in something clever, gaily tossed
Into the text from which he never learns.
The price goes up when preachers add their share
Of footling comment, and the Gospel runs
A distant second, silent in despair.
One says that at Christ’s agony, the sun’s
Light was blocked out because the moon turned back,
And others say the light, all on its own,
Went into hiding, so the sky turned black
From one end to the other of the zone,
120   So Spaniards and Indians as well as Jews
Were in the dark. Florence has fewer boys
With names so many families seem to choose—
Lapo and Bindo—than these bags of noise
Proclaiming from their pulpits cocksure views—
Year in, year out, the pleasure never cloys—
To poor sheep who return from pasture fed
On pure wind. That they do not see their loss
Doesn’t excuse the pundits peddling lead
For gold. Christ didn’t say ‘The crowd wants dross:
130   Spin them a line’ to his first regiment.
He gave them a true basis. Nothing less
Was on their lips than gospel when they went
Into the world to battle faithlessness:
It was their shield and spear. But now they preach
With jokes and taunts, and if they get a laugh
Their cowls puff up, as if the stuff they teach
Were not just too much cleverness by half
But all that counts. They bask in the acclaim
And ask no more. The devil, that sleek crow,
140   Nests in the hood’s tail to wrap up his fame,
Yet if the people saw him they would know
They’re trusting in a swindle, from which such
Folly has grown on earth that they will flock
To any promise, and without so much
As one hint of a warrant. Thus the stock
Of hogs that were St. Anthony’s wax fat,
Which once were sacred. Others more swinish still
Wax fatter. And the coin they pay for that
Is counterfeit: pardons exchanged for swill.
150   But we’ve digressed enough. Time for your eyes
To once more meet the straight road, so it may
Be shortened, with the time. Here in the skies,
These angels number, in their vast array,
Beyond what mortal thought can well devise
A figure for, or mortal speech can say,
For Daniel spoke of thousands but could not
Be definite: ten thousand squared, and then
That number cubed, and . . . he just meant a lot
More than the mind could hold. Unknown to men,
160   The sum is yours to see. The primal light
Irradiating all of them is caught
By them in many ways, in all the bright
Splendours from which that central blaze is wrought.
Therefore, since the affections follow on
From their conception, the initial act,
Love’s sweetness, streaming from the paragon,
Shines variously in them, by that one fact
Impelled to all the numberless degrees
And kinds of brilliance, pinpoint strength unpacked
170   Into the myriad intensities
Of its expression. Look at how it glows,
The height, the width of the Eternal Good:
So many mirrors where it breaks and goes
On breaking, yet remains the one thing. Could
One and the many show more harmony?
It stuns you, doesn’t it? It still stuns me.”
Six thousand long miles eastward it is noon.
Here, night is ending. The Earth’s shadow lies
Level in bed, and in the mid-sky, soon,
Deep up above us, to our searching eyes,
A change will come: the odd star disappears,
The handmaid of the sun approaches. One
By one the sky’s lights shut down as she nears,
Even the loveliest, and it is done:
The new day dawns. Exactly in that wise
10 The triumph that has always been at play
Around that point, and will be though time flies
Forever—the pure point that took away
My senses and which, to the reeling mind,
Includes that which includes it—bit by bit
Retreated from my sight, so, being blind
And full of love, there was no help for it:
I turned my eyes to her. If all I’ve said
Of Beatrice up to now were gathered in
One song of praise, it would be left for dead
20 By this task. I scarce know how to begin.
Not only is the beauty that I saw
Beyond our measures, but I do believe
Only its Maker can express the store
Of joy in it. For me, I can’t conceive
The first phrase, and I must admit defeat.
Comic or tragic, poet never met
A point, in any theme he chose to treat,
More dizzying, for, as weak sight is set
Wavering by the sun, the memory
30 Of that sweet smile undoes my mind. In all
The time from that first day I came to see
Her face in life to this incredible
Moment of seeing her again, my song
Has gone on, but from now I must desist
From singing of the beauty that so long
Has drawn my verse, unable to resist,
Through many cantos, since the point must come,
For any artist, when his powers give out.
Therefore I leave her to a mightier sum
40 Of heraldry than mine: the final shout
Of my poor trumpet falters and falls dumb
As its hard theme comes winding to an end.
With voice and bearing of a patient guide
Whose work is done, no hard way left to wend,
She said “We have come through to the far side
Of Heaven’s largest realm, to which you lend
The name of Primum Mobile, and here
We rise into a heaven of pure light—
Of intellectual light, light full of sheer
50 Pure love, love full of goodness true and right,
Love full of joy, joy so sweet as to shame
All other sweet things else. Here you will know
By sight, the holy soldiers that you name
Angels and saints, and those saints will be so
As they were in their lives, and thus the same
As they will be when you see them again
At the Last Judgement.” Thus, exactly as
Our visual spirits are soon scattered when
A bolt of lightning strikes, because it has
60 Such power our power to see it is outrun
And even the clearest objects lose their place,
Just so a vivid fiery light was spun
Around me like a veil that made all space
Invisible to me, with every one
Of its particulars eclipsed. “The love
That calms this heaven,” she continued, “will
Always so welcome one who comes above,
Preparing the cold candle thus to fill
Its cusp with flame.” When these brief words arrived
70 In my mind, I was instantly aware
Of powers within me that had never thrived
So much, or so far risen through the air:
New powers of vision, such that there could be
No light, however strongly brought to bear,
My eyes could not have borne. And suddenly
I saw light with a river’s form that poured
Its splendour in between two banks bedecked
With all the colours our spring days afford:
A marvellous spring, though one you might expect,
80 Except this living flood sent sparks abroad
To settle on the flowers of either bank
Like rubies set in gold. As if their heads
Were dizzy from the perfumes that they drank,
They rose again out of the flower beds
And plunged back, scintillating rank on rank,
Into the stream, to be replaced by more
That soared from the same ripples where they sank,
And so it all continued as before.
“The high desire,” she said, “that flames within
90 Your mind to know just what is happening
Delights me more the more it swells to win
More space to burn. But now to the first thing
You need to do before you can begin
To slake your great thirst. First you have to drink
From that stream.” Thus the sun who ruled my eyes
Addressed me, and continued: “Look and think:
The river and the topazes that rise
And fly from it and then return to sink,
And how the flowers laugh, are the forecast,
100   In shadow, of the truth. They don’t fall short
Of being perfect. It is you, at last,
That has the defect. Still less than it ought
To be, your vision is outmatched as yet.”
No infant that has slept too long could throw
Itself so suddenly, its sure aim set,
Towards the milk, as I, who thirsted so
To make of my eyes better mirrors still,
Bent down to where I saw the waters flow,
With all the sparkling interchange they spill,
110   For our perfecting. When my eyelids’ eaves
Were wet, it seemed that instantly the stream
Transformed its length to roundness. What deceives,
Reveals, once done away with, how a dream
Holds more than we had thought. As people who,
Having worn masks, when they remove them seem
Not quite the same as those we thought we knew,
For me the sparks and flowers now had changed
Into a greater festival, in which
Both courts of Heaven clearly stood arranged.
120   Splendour of God that let me see the rich
High triumph of truth’s kingdom, help me tell
Of what I saw! There is a light that spreads
So wide that its circumference would fall well
Outside the girdle of the sun. It sheds
The sight of their Creator, as He is,
On all whose peace depends on seeing Him,
For He is with them all, and they are His.
And all the flood of light within that rim
Is made by no more than a single ray
130   Reflected from, with all its wealth and force,
The summit of the Primum Mobile,
And as a hillside looks down to a course
Of water at its foot and sees itself,
Adorned with its spring flowers and its green grass,
Exactly pictured in that mirrored shelf,
I saw, above this light, one tier surpass
Another for a thousand tiers, and there
Were all of us who ever have returned
On high, and if the lowest level’s share
140   Of incandescence that within it burned
Was so great, what could be the full extent
Of this rose in its furthest petals? Here
The breadth and length did not exhaust my glance,
Since there was no increase from being near
Or loss from being far, in this extent
And quality of joy. For where God’s law
Directly rules His unmixed element,
The law of Nature can apply no more.
Into the yellow everlasting rose,
150   Rising and spreading in its serried ranks,
Exhaling heady perfumes that disclose
Praise to the sun, extending its deep thanks
For a perpetual spring, Beatrice drew me
As one who, silent, still would speak. “Behold!”
She said, “How great, how great the company
Of these white robes! See, see now and be told
How great the city! See our seats so filled
That few souls are still lacking. And in that
Great chair on which your eyes are held and stilled
160   By the crown poised over it, there will be sat—
Before you come to join the nuptial feast—
The soul of Henry, who shall be, below,
Made emperor, to get Italy released
From her wrong course, but she will be too slow
To heed him. Ah, too soon, too soon deceased,
Your one hope and the hopes of your fair land!
For your blind greed will only be increased,
Driving the Guelphs to take their senseless stand
And break his noble heart. Greed makes you like
170   The hungry infant who drives out his nurse,
For at that time a two-faced pope will strike
With his forked tongue. Yes, Clement, who will curse
Henry in secret while he speaks aloud
In praise of him. God will not suffer long
That pope in office. Mantled in a shroud,
He will go down to share the prize for wrong
With Simon Magus. A still deeper place
Awaits his predecessor, Boniface.”