Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 31–33 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 31–33

The form, then, of the saintly host of Christ
Was shown to me as being a white rose,
A perfect rose which, with His own blood, Christ
Has made His bride. But also there are those—
The other host—who, flying, see and sing
The glory of the Lord who holds their love
And goodness that has made them everything
They are, and there they are, at large above.
Just like a swarm of bees that first will dive
10 Into the flowers and then go back to turn
Their toil to nectar, treasure of the hive,
These ones I watched—for I was here to learn—
Descend headlong into the mighty flower
Of many petals, and then re-ascend
To where the love abides in all its power
Forever, and then, flying without end,
They swoop again, their faces living flame,
Their wings of gold, and for the rest, so white
Our fresh snow couldn’t hope to seem the same.
20 When they again went back down from the height
Into the bloom, they gave it, tier on tier,
The peace and order they had gained from how
They fanned their sides with wings. Nor did the sheer
Abundance of their flying—marvel, now—
From height to flower, in any way impede
The sight in all its splendour. The divine
Light penetrates, with instant spread and speed,
The universe to every part, in line
With what it’s worth. Nothing can intercede.
30 Serene and joyous kingdom, thronged with all
These people old and new, where love and sight
Without a break, shared one field and no wall!
Ah, look upon our tempest, Threefold Light,
Sent outward from a single star to fall
On everyone in equal measure! Think
How the barbarians, born where the Bears—
Great Bear and Little Bear—both wheel and blink,
Were so reduced to slack mouths and dumb stares
When first they saw the mighty works of Rome,
40 The Lateran outsoaring any roof,
By ten times, that they’d ever seen at home.
Then think of me, when faced there with the proof
Of how far I had come, the human plane
To the divine, time to eternity,
The Florentines to people just and sane.
Amazement added to my joy made me
Content to hear no sound and to remain
Silent. And as a pilgrim looks around
The temple of his vow refreshed, and hopes
50 To tell again some day of what he found,
So I took my eyes upward through the slopes
Of living light, and I surveyed the ranks,
Now up, now down, and now around again,
Through all the faces so evoking thanks
For Charity. With Another’s light, and then
With light from their own smiles, their faces shone,
And every move with dignity and grace.
Thus I had seen, but not yet lingered on,
In any part, the structure of that place.
60 And for those points my mind had paused upon
I turned to ask my lady if she’d make
Them clear to my rekindled eagerness.
My expectation, though, was a mistake.
Instead of her, I saw I must address
An old man, in the radiant attire
Of that exalted company. His eyes
And cheeks suffused with reassuring fire
Of gracious joy, his aspect kind and wise,
He seemed a tender father. I, in haste,
70 Said “Where is she?” And gently he replied
“Beatrice, from her concern you would not waste
Your longing, sent me down here to your side
From my seat. If you’d know how she is placed,
Look up there to the third tier from the peak
And you’ll see her again, set on the throne
Her merits suit her for.” I did not speak,
But lifted up my eyes and saw her where
She made herself a crown fit to reflect
The everlasting beams. Here in our air,
80 The highest region, thundering unchecked,
Is not so far from mortal eye—not when
The eye is in the deep sea lost—as was
Beatrice in glory from my vision then,
And yet it made no odds to me, because
Her image was undimmed as it came down
To my eyes, since the air was pure between.
“Lady, aloft beneath your fitting crown,
In whom my hope found strength, and who has been
To Hell and left her footprints there for my
90 Salvation, let me say I recognise
Such grace and virtue was made actual by
Your power and goodness. You gave me the prize
Of loosened bondage, lending all the ways
And means at your command. In that same wise,
Preserve in me, until I end my days,
Your bounty, so the spirit you made whole
May leave the body you were pleased to know.”
That was my prayer, delivered from the soul,
And she, who seemed so far off, smiled, and though
100   She looked at me awhile, she turned once more
To the Eternal Fountain. The saint said
“In order that the path which lies before,
Your journey to the end, which you now tread,
Should be familiar to you and complete,
Fly with your eyes, and thus prepare your sight,
Through this tall garden, so you’re set to meet
The Radiance Divine as you gain height.
The Queen of Heaven, who has all my fire
Of love, will surely grant us every grace,
110   For I am Bernard, her most faithful squire,
Rewarded with the vision of her face.”
As some Croatian pilgrim who is shown,
In Rome, the Veronica (the handkerchief
That once, when Christ climbed his last hill alone,
A woman used to bring him some relief,
Mopping his brow), will say, within his mind,
“Lord Jesus Christ, true God, was this you?” such
Was I, since Bernard, when with humankind,
Had known, by contemplation, how to touch
120   On this peace. “Child of grace,” he said, “This state
Of joy you will not see if you should keep
Your eyes down here around the entrance gate.
You must look up as far as the most steep
Of circles till you see the Queen to whom
This realm is subject and devoted.” I
Lifted my gaze, and as there is more room
For light on the horizon where the sky
Is touched by sunrise in the morning than
There is where the sun sets, just so, when my
130   Eyes, from the valley where their climb began,
Attained the mountain top, I saw one part
Of the extreme edge far outshine the rest
Of that rim with its light. As at the start
Of sunrise, we see one place the more blessed
With fire, and on each side of that it shades
Away, just so that peaceful oriflamme—
Not the French flag for battles and parades—
Showed brighter in the middle, with a dam
To hold it back on either side. And at
140   That middle point, I saw, with outspread wings,
A thousand angels—no, far more than that—
In festival, each, in specific things
To do, and in its brightness, quite unique.
And smiling on their sports and songs, there reigned
A beauty, joy to all. If I could speak
As I imagine, yet I’d be constrained
To silence on the subject of the least
Suggestion of her splendour. Bernard saw
My eyes on her from whom he never ceased
150   To draw warmth, and he turned to her once more
His own eyes, with a love that made the thrill
Of my first sight of her more thrilling still.
Absorbed in pleasure, that contemplative
Freely became a teacher, and began
His lesson. He had holy words to give.
“The wound that brought death to the Son of Man,
Which Mary closed with ointment, was first prised
Apart and then pierced through by that one there,
Seated below her feet. You’ve realised
That it is Eve, because she is so fair,
And here she is, redeemed. In the third row,
10 Below her, Rachel sits with Beatrice,
As you can see. Then Sarah you must know,
And then Rebecca. Judith has found peace,
And Ruth, great-grandmother to him that so
Grieved for his sin he didn’t sing, but cried
‘Have mercy on me.’ (Yes, King David.) Then,
You see there, as I name the sanctified,
The way they sit below and then again
Below, the holy women line by line
Down through the rose, all duly ranked from one
20 Soft petal to the next. See how they shine.
And from the seventh grade, as they have done
Above, the Hebrew women rank by rank
Divide the tresses of the flower, for they
Are like a wall, the wall we have to thank
For how it parts the sacred stair. The way
They looked on faith in Christ is what decides
The matter. On the one side, where the flower
Is in full bloom and not one space abides,
Sit those with faith that Christ, in all his power,
30 Would one day come. The other side holds those
Who saw he had. Not all of them as yet
Are there, so some half-circles of the rose
Are cut by vacant places. Like the set
Of tiers that comes down from the glorious seat
Of Heaven’s Queen, to constitute one edge
Of the divide, so, downward from the feet
Of great John, comes the other, ledge to ledge.
He, holy always, braved the wilderness
And martyrdom, and then, for two years, Hell,
40 Until Christ crucified eased his distress.
Below him, reading downward, we can tell
These seats were well assigned, for there we see
Thomas and Benedict and Augustine
And others in their multiplicity—
So many of these great ones there have been—
All the way down to here. Behold how deep
The sacred foresight was, for both aspects
Of faith shall equally take up the steep
Slopes of the garden, not as separate sects
50 But as two halves of one whole. Also note
How, anywhere below that level grade
That cuts the two lines of the upright moat,
Those have their seats who have not been arrayed
On their account, but for their parent’s worth,
Conditions being met: they were absolved
From their small bodies too close to their birth
To have a choice, or know what was involved,
And this you will yourself deduce from how
Their faces look, and how their voices sound
60 So childish, if you concentrate your brow
To look and listen. I see I astound
You with these words, for you are sore perplexed,
And in perplexity are silent. Thought—
One subtlety criss-crossing with the next,
So no clear line emerges as it ought—
Has made a hard knot you are trapped within.
I’ll loosen it. Nothing of any sort
Can here exist or even can begin
Subject to chance, which simply finds no place
70 In all this kingdom’s breadth, not any more
Than hunger, thirst or sorrow. All you face
Is soundly based upon eternal law:
The fit of ring to finger is exact.
It follows that all those who hastened here
To have their true life are not ranked, in fact,
As high and low, however it might appear.
The King through whom this realm rests in such love
And sheer delight that no desire may dare
To do more—making all minds, here above,
80 In His glad sight—bestows his gracious care
According to his wish. The facts fulfil
The proof of this, but Scripture tells you, too,
That, in the womb, the twins did not lie still,
But fought in anger, just as they would do
In later life. Esau and Jacob had
Their different colourings of head to prove
The guiding light that chose how each was clad
In hair, chose also how their souls would move
From birth to death, not by themselves inspired.
90 It’s not the merit of their doings, but
The keenness of the vision they acquired
In their first instant, that sees each one shut
Into the certain path—by Him desired,
Not them—that leads to the particular
Rank they hold here. In early times it was
The innocence of their young character
Abetted by their parent’s faith, gave cause
For their salvation, earned by those two things.
First age completed, males were circumcised,
100   Strength being lent to their unknowing wings
Solely by that, as if they’d been baptised;
But when the age of grace came, innocence
Was held below, unless it had been blessed
With baptism in its full Christian sense.
That said, look now on that face you think best
Resembles Christ, for only its intense
White light can show you Him.” I saw such joy
Rain down on her, borne in the holy minds
Created for those heights where they deploy
110   Their flight, that all the many different kinds
Of gladness I’d seen up till then had not
So held me in suspense and wonder, nor
Evinced such likeness to the Lord, and what
That loving spirit who had flown before
With his announcement did now was to spread
His wings before her and to sing again
“Hail Mary, full of grace.” On every side,
The blessed court sang their response to this
Divine song, every face filled with the tide
120   Of brightness in this canticle of bliss.
“My saintly father, bearing for my sake
The task of stepping down from that sweet place
Where you by lot eternal rightly take
Your seat, give me the name to match the face
Of that one angel gazing on the eyes
Of our Queen with such rapture, so enthralled
He seems on fire.” As you might surmise,
I well knew what that cavalier was called,
But wished more lessons from the man who drew
130   Beauty from Mary as the morning star
Draws beauty from the sun. He knew I knew,
But answered anyway. “Because you are
Still hungry, hear this. He is Gabriel
The herald. Every confidence that can
Exist, and every courtly ease as well,
Whether in angel or the soul of man,
Is found in him, and we would have it so,
For he’s the very one who brought the palm
To Earth for Mary, so that she might know
140   The son of God had sought her inner calm
To put the burden on of human flesh.
But follow with your eyes as I denote
Some you have seen but now will see afresh
In their right place: great nobles, though their coat
Of arms attests, in this empire of peace,
To mercy and to justice. Those two there,
Whose happiness no blessing could increase
Because it is the Empress that they share
For neighbour, are the two roots, as it were,
150   Of this rose. On her left, the father whose
Rash tasting first instilled in humankind
The bitter taste of all they stood to lose
Through sin, and on her right, the father of
Our Holy Church, to whom Christ gave the keys
Of this resplendent flower and all its love.
Beside him sits the one whose prophecies,
In his Apocalypse, foretold the grief
Of Christ’s fair bride, won with the lance and nails:
John the Evangelist, spurred by belief,
160   While still alive, to see beyond the veils
Of his own time. Beside the other rests
That leader whose weak, thankless, fickle flock
Were given manna though they failed all tests.
Opposite Peter in that central block
You can see Anna, mother of the Queen,
So well content to see her daughter, she
Still keeps her eyes where they have always been
While singing her hosannas constantly.
The first great family father sits across
170   From Lucy, she who sent your lady down
To help you when you were at such a loss
Your brow was not just furrowed with a frown,
But beaten to destruction. Since the time
Is flying now that holds you in your sleep,
We should pause to take stock here, as a prime
Tailor will cut his cloth so as to keep
The outlines of a coat within the bounds
Of what he has to work with. Let’s direct
Our eyes to where the Primal Love resounds
180   In silent light, so that your intellect
May enter, insofar as it’s allowed,
His mighty fire. But lest, perhaps, you fall
Short of that aim, recoiling with head bowed,
Yet still with beating wings, in spite of all
Still hoping to advance, grace must be won
From Her who has the power to see you through.
So follow me with love while this is done.
Lend your heart to my words, for they are true.”
And what he said next, I’ll now say to you.
“Our Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,”
St. Bernard prayed, “So low of birth and yet
Exalted so much more than anyone
On Earth or in the sky, forever set
As goal of the Church council, you are she
Who so ennobled human nature’s state
Its maker deigned to have His majesty
Made in its making. God’s love incarnate,
The same fire that first made this flower bloom—
10 The warmth pervading its eternal peace—
Was kindled once again within your womb.
Up here, for all of us, you never cease
To be the charitable torch of noon,
And down below you are hope’s living spring
For mortals. You, great lady, late and soon,
Are so supreme, he would be floundering
Who sought for grace and did not turn to you,
His wish without wings, without everything,
Despite whatever he might strive to do.
20 Your kind love comforts all who ask, and may
Often anticipate the asking. Through
Your goodness, all the good in any way
In every creature is combined. You are
All mercy, pity, bounty, joined in one.
This man, who comes to see you from so far
Below, the sky has never known the sun
In that pit of the universe, has seen
The spirits each and all. Now, by your grace,
He seeks the power to say his eyes have been
30 Still higher, even to the final place
Of his salvation. Never for my own
Great vision did I burn as now I burn
For his, but now I pray for him alone
That your prayers, prayers divine, will in their turn
Divest him of his every mortal cloud,
So that the joy supreme may be disclosed
To him. My Queen to whom all is allowed,
I pray that if you do what I’ve proposed,
You afterwards keep his affections pure,
40 The vision splendid having been achieved;
That you will guard him thenceforth to ensure
By human impulse he is not deceived
And led astray again. But now see how
Beatrice and all the others clap their hands:
It must be for my prayer.” The Queen’s eyes now
Made clear to us how well she understands
And cherishes our prayers. The eyes revered
And loved by God beheld her courtier
For long enough to prove his prayers endeared
50 Him further to her, but then went elsewhere—
Towards the Light Eternal, where no gaze
Other than hers so deeply penetrates,
As I, my own desires in their last phase
Where steady craving finally abates,
Already did what Bernard asked me to
By signing with a smile. I looked up. More
And more my sight, becoming pure and true,
Was entering the beam of that high store
Of light, itself true. From that moment on,
60 My vision outsoared all our powers of speech,
Which quail at such a sight and then are gone,
And memory fails, the task beyond its reach.
As he who sees all in a dream, but when
He wakes, finds just the passion has remained
In mind, and all the rest will not again
Come back to him, a spectacle retained
Only in feeling, such am I. It fades,
My vision, and yet still, within my heart,
The sweetness that was born from it cascades
70 In drops, a distillation, the last part
To melt, just as the snowdrift in the sun
Blurs outlines, and the Sybil’s oracle
That she wrote on the leaves, when she was done,
Was lost along the wind. Ah, if not all,
Give me at least a little, Light Supreme—
You that are raised above all mortal thought—
Of how you looked, so I might give a gleam—
And lend my tongue the power to report—
Of your great glory for those yet to come,
80 For if it comes back to my memory
At least in part, and some part of the sum
Lives in these lines, then so much more will be
Your triumph realised. I think that by
The sharpness that I suffered from the force
Of that ray’s vividness the chance was high
My eyesight, had it been turned from that course,
Would have been dazzled. Such, indeed, was why
I dared, I now recall, to face the light
Straight on, so long that all my sight was spent
90 Upon it. In its depths I saw, packed tight,
Bound in one book by love, all that is sent
Abroad throughout the universe as leaves
Torn out and scattered: single, separate things,
And any kind of quality that cleaves
To them and enters, and whatever brings
A partial framework to some area
Of all that multiplicity. But here
All things and links that ever were and are
Were fused together so they might appear
100   To me as one pure light. I know I saw
The universal form of this intact
Complexity, because my joy, the more
I tell of it, expands to mark the act
Of speaking. Thus a single moment holds
Me in a trance far deeper than those five
And twenty centuries have kept their folds
Around King Neptune, who must always strive
To comprehend what crossed his upward glance:
The shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind,
110   Held fast, gazed fixedly and not askance,
By thoughts rekindled of what it might find
Plumbing the crucible of happenstance.
For at that light, no man can turn aside—
Not by consent—to see aught else: the good,
The object of the will and our best guide,
Is gathered into it, and nothing could
Exist apart from it and not be called
Defective, for perfection can be sought
Only where all perfections are installed,
120   In that light. But my speech must now fall short
Even of what I can remember still.
An infant’s tongue still bathing at the breast
Could say more. As my eyes yet drank their fill
Of that light, things did not remain at rest:
Not that the light did not remain the same—
It always had one aspect, as before—
But as my sight, in gazing at the flame,
Gained strength, the single aspect the light wore
Was changing in my eyes as I was changed.
130   In that high flame’s deep and unblemished field
Three circles of three colours were arranged,
All of the same extent. One seemed to yield
Its lustre—as a pair of rainbows may—
To the other, and the third was made of fire
Breathed forth by the first two. What can I say?
Was this the trinity of my desire
Or was it not? Alas, how scant is speech,
Failing my concept by so very much!
And what I saw, that concept failed to reach
140   By such a distance, was so out of touch,
To call it “little” scarcely would suffice.
Eternal light, known to yourself alone,
Knowing yourself alone, once, twice and thrice,
In loving company yet on your own,
The self-renewing well of paradise
Forever! All the circling thus unloosed
Reflected light, which my eyes dwelt upon
And saw the way those swirling tints produced
A painted likeness that my eyes fixed on
150   Completely, for that likeness was of us.
Like the geometer who sets his soul
To square the circle and will not discuss
One thing besides, and yet—although the whole
Of what he knows is poured into the task—
Can’t find the necessary principle,
Just so was I when faced with that strange mask.
How was the image fitted to the full
Activity within the circle? Why
Should it be placed there? But my wings were not
160   Sufficient. It took faith’s flash to supply
My mind with that sharp blow by which it got
Its wish. Imagination, there on high—
Too high to breathe free, after such a climb—
Had lost its power; but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.