Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 4–6 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 4–6

Between two tempting dishes each way set
Apart, and parallel in their appeal,
A man could, before either of them met
His lips, perish from hunger, his next meal
Untouched. A lamb between two wolves might stand
In equal fear of both and what they crave.
A hound between doves, on the other hand,
More like the man, could die, however brave,
Torn by irresolution. Thus if I
10 Kept silent, by two equal doubts compelled,
I neither blame nor praise myself thereby.
It was necessity. My tongue was held,
But my desire was painted on my face:
My question, too, and far more warmly than
In plain words. Beatrice took Daniel’s place
When he guessed the bad dream and shrunk the span
Of Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath, which made that king
Cruelly unjust, and she said “I see well
How one desire leads to another thing,
20 Drawing you on, so that, without a spell
For breath, your keenness binds itself and you.
You reason thus: ‘If my right will prevails,
How is it something someone else might do
By violence can impede it so it fails
Even a little, the preferment due
To me by merit?’ And you are perplexed
That souls seem to return, as Plato taught,
Into the stars. These questions, mixed and vexed,
Press on your will. First, I shall treat the thought
30 Containing the most poison, which is that
Stemming from Plato, who wants different skies
For each grade of beatitude, and at
The threshold must be those who might not rise
To be exalted. Let that thought be gone.
Not even the first Seraph at God’s side,
Not Moses, Samuel, or whichever John
You choose, and no, not even heaven’s pride,
Mary herself, are in a different seat
Than this First Circle where these souls appear.
40 All heaven is this place. For all you’ll meet,
Eternity’s the same length, to the year.
They all make heaven fair, and life is sweet
For each, but since the far is always near,
The difference of their bliss is measured by
Only their distance from the breath divine
And everlasting, in a single sky.
These ones have shown themselves, not by design
Of sphere allotted to them, but to prove
That they are least exalted, last in line
50 To go up nearer. Seeming still, they move.
Here I must speak directly to your sense,
For only how you see and feel can seize
That which your intellect finds too immense
At first encounter. It’s by such degrees
Of teaching, that the Scriptures condescend
To your capacity. Thus the Supreme
Being is given hands and feet. The end
Is allegory, and a hidden theme
Is also served when Holy Church brings news
60 Of Michael decked out with a human face,
And Gabriel, and Raphael. The views
Put by Timaeus, pinning down the place
Of souls, are not reflected here, for what
He says he seems to think true: that the soul
Returns to its own star, from which it got—
When nature formed it as a separate whole—
Released. Perhaps, however, that was not
The true import of what his words express,
And there’s a meaning we might not despise.
70 His arrow flies with some truth, more or less,
If he means that their influence, in guise
Of honour or of blame, rejoins these wheels.
This principle, ill understood, misled
Almost the whole world, which in part still feels,
Falsely, the names of stars meant what they said
In the first instance: Mars and Mercury
And Jupiter as gods to be revered.
The other doubt that shakes your reverie
Is not so poisonous. You won’t be steered
80 Away from me and into heresy
By mischief of that kind. Our justice may
Appear unjust to mortals. That just proves
How faith, not wicked doubt, has final say
In the more mystifying ways God moves.
But since your understanding is well fit
To penetrate that truth, I shall content
Your need to know about the violence. It
May well be that there’s no thought of consent
By the victim to the violator, yet
90 These souls were not excused on that account:
For will, if it wills not, is still not set
Aside completely, but like fire will mount
Straight up again although a thousand times
Blown reeling sideways, and it therefore bends
As much or little, in the face of crimes,
As it condones them. So it all depends
On what these did next. And they might have fled
Back to the holy places, if their will
Had been unbroken. Stretched on his hot bed,
100   Lawrence remained determined to fulfil
His destiny; and, unmoved, the right hand
Of Mucius stayed in the fire. The same
Determination, you must understand,
Would surely have brought these back whence they came,
As soon as they were free. The path they’d been
Abducted from was there still. Still, such force
Of will is rare. But if the things I mean
Form part, from now on, of your mind’s resource,
Then your false reasoning is cancelled out
110   To trouble you no more, as it well might
Have done. But now, to turn your course about
If you were by yourself, another tight
And hard, exhausting place lies close ahead.
It’s near enough to be plain to your sight.
It’s set now in your mind, what I have said:
There can be no lies from a soul in bliss,
For it is near to primal truth always.
Piccarda might have seemed to counter this
When she said Constance, with her constant gaze
120   Forever on the veil, did not return
To where she might have worn it once again.
But, brother, many times, as you should learn,
It happens that, against the will of men,
Escape from danger means that something’s done
Which shouldn’t be. So Alcmaeon achieved
Revenge on her—although he was her son—
Who killed his father. He was twice bereaved,
But pitiless in piety at last.
Learn this, then, at this point. There is a blend
130   Of force and will where no offence is passed
Beyond excuse, though means lead to good end.
The absolute will knows no yielding law:
But, when conditional, will may give ground
Because it fears, if it resists, that more
Trouble will come. Piccarda, then, was sound:
She meant strict will by what she said before,
And I the other kind. Thus you have found
The truth two ways.” Such was the rippling flow,
Setting one wish and then the next at rest,
140   Of the holy stream that holds all we can know
Of truth, and from the fountain forth is blessed.
“Beloved of the First Love, you that so
Divinely speak,” I said, “you flood my soul
To make it always warm and more alive,
Not all of my affection, not the whole
Of what I say, no matter how I strive,
Will serve to match your grace to me with mine.
May He do that who sees, and can do, all.
I see well how, unless the truth divine
150   Enlightens it, our intellect must fall
Short of the truth, unsatisfied. That line
Once crossed beyond which human truth can range
To holy truth, the beast is in its lair.
Home gained, it rests, impervious to change:
And all of our desires were empty air
Without this. It means doubt is like a shoot
Springing from truth. It is a natural urge.
The questioning has nature at the root.
We’re pushed from height to height till we emerge
160   Up at the summit. It’s all nature’s plan,
And so I am invited and made bold
To ask you of another truth less than
Clear to me, lady. Let me now be told
If ever it can happen that a man
May make it up to you by doing good
For vows he has not kept.” She looked at me
With eyes so full of love my powers could
Do nothing to withstand the clarity
That sparkled there within. My vision shook.
170   I almost fainted, stunned by that one look.
“If, in a flame of love beyond all seen
On Earth, I glow to you so that your eyes
Are conquered in their power, let that not mean
You marvel, for you have to realize
This comes when perfect vision apprehends
The good, and, knowing what it is, moves near.
I see now how the light that never ends
Shines in your mind: light which, seen to appear,
Alone and always kindles love. From this,
10 Come all things that beguile you: even though
From just a trace of it, and hit and miss
Your understanding of it, yet the glow
Shines through.” So saying, Beatrice began
The canto, and, like one who would not break
Her speech, she said “God’s greatest gift to man
In all the bounty He was moved to make
Throughout creation—the one gift the most
Close to his goodness and the one He calls
Most precious—is free will. Creatures that boast
20 Intelligence have this, but none that falls
Outside that category is endowed
With any. Now it will be clear to you,
In view of this, the worth of what is vowed,
If it be such that God does as you do:
That is, consent. For it is in the pact
Of God and man that the great treasure chest—
Free will, as I have said—by its own act
Becomes the sacrifice. What would be best
To offer for a vow that’s unfulfilled?
30 Nothing. Nothing you give in recompense
Will serve, for what you will is now ill-willed:
Good works with stolen gains would make more sense.
By now you are assured on the chief point,
But Holy Church can sometimes waive its laws
In this regard: which might seem out of joint
With what I’ve said is true. So you must pause
For thought, sit at the table for a while.
The tough food you have swallowed won’t stay down
Without help. Let your mind, in its best style,
40 Be open to my words and win renown
For holding on to them, since to have heard
Without retention can’t deserve the name
Of knowledge: the mere thought would be absurd.
Two things in close accord but not the same
Supply the essence of that sacrifice.
One is material, the thing you give
Or else give up. That’s the substantial price.
The other’s formal. How you vow to live,
The pact itself. This last can’t be annulled
50 Save by observing it. Regarding which
I spoke just now, with never a point dulled.
Just as the Hebrews had, without a hitch,
To make their offerings, though what those were
Could change, as you are no doubt well aware,
The formal part, to which I now refer,
I made clear when I told the tale back there
About the vow. That part indeed may be
Such that no fault, if matter is exchanged,
Need be incurred. But still, let no one free
60 His shoulders from a burden once arranged,
Unless, to back his choice, the silver key
Of priestly wisdom, and the golden one
That signifies priestly authority,
Have both been turned, to prove it may be done.
And every such exchange is reckoned vain
Unless the new load outweighs the one shed
By six to four at least, so that a gain
Of burden, not a loss, is there instead.
A vow, which tips all balances on Earth,
70 For value, can’t be matched by anything
At all, no matter what that thing is worth.
Therefore let humans take great care to bring
Their full attention to a vow, and not
Be frivolous. Nor should they be perverse
Like Jephthah, who pledged wildly, and forgot
That keeping faith might make a bad thing worse.
He said that he would offer, to be burned,
The first thing that emerged from his front door.
It was his daughter, and too late he learned
80 That saying ‘I did ill’ would have earned more
Credit with God. And Agamemnon, too,
Showed the same folly when, to sail for Troy
On a fair wind, he offered payment down:
His daughter Iphigenia. The joy
Went out of her fair face. To grieve for her
Is wise for all who’ve heard about that rite,
And simple. How could such a thing occur?
Christians, let not your attitude be light
To undertakings. Feathers in every wind
90 Ought not to be your model, nor will all
Waters restore clean skin when you have sinned.
Remember how, to save you from a fall,
You have the Testaments, both New and Old,
To guide you, and the Pastor of the Church.
Give not the Jew that’s with you in the fold
His opportunity. If you besmirch
Yourself with wicked greed at his cheap rates,
The pardoner is glad. You must be men,
Not stupid sheep. For ridicule awaits
100   The lamb that leaves its mother’s milk, and then,
Foolish and wanton, fights itself to suit
Its brainless pleasure.” Just so, Beatrice spoke
In these words that I write, and then turned, mute,
Yet more with longing than I can evoke,
To where the universe is brightest. Such
A falling wordless and a change of look
Silenced my eager mind, already much
Preoccupied with pages—a whole book—
Of extra questions. We sped like a shaft
110   That strikes the mark before the cord is still,
Into the second realm. As if she laughed
Aloud, I saw my lady’s fair face fill
With joy when entering the radiance
Of that next heaven, and the planet turn
The brighter for it, and the star enhance
Its aspect with a smile, though it could burn
More brightly only in this circumstance.
Imagine, then, what I became, when by
My nature I am so transmutable!
120   As in a fish pool that’s a calm, clear sky
To all those fish beneath, they form a school
Around what comes from outside, which they guess
To be new food, so now I saw at least
A thousand splendours make the distance less
Towards us, gathering around the feast.
From them I heard “How this one will augment
Our lives!” and as each eager soul came near
It seemed so full of happiness it sent
Bright flames out all around. If I stopped here,
130   Think, reader, how you’d crave a testament
More full. Then you will know how much desire
I had to hear from them about their state,
As soon as I could see them in their fire.
“You, born for good, for whom it is the fate,
Given by grace, to gaze on the great chairs
Of triumph in eternity although
Your war continues, each one of us bears
The light of charity that spreads its glow
Through all of Heaven. Thus, if you’re inclined
140   To be enlightened about us, then at
Your pleasure ask away. Just speak your mind.”
One of those pious spirits said all that,
Then Beatrice said this: “Speak, speak, you’ll find
Them trustworthy as gods.” I: “I see well
How you nest in your own light, which is drawn
From your eyes: for when you speak, I can tell
It must spring from your smile, an extra dawn
Adorning daylight. As for what you are,
However, I don’t know, nor why you rank
150   In this sphere, that another’s beams debar
From mortal sight, for Mercury is blank
Beside the blazing sun.” Thus I enquired
Of that effulgence which addressed me first:
A light that then became, as if inspired,
Far brighter than before. Like the sunburst
That comes when, all dense vapours burned away,
The sun conceals itself with excess light,
Just so the holy form put on more day
As if the day it had was merely night,
160   And hid in its own joy. What can I say?
Such eloquence can spring from hidden things.
But what it said next, my next canto sings.
“When Constantine, two centuries before
My time, removed the eagle from the west
And sent it east, then never anymore,
For all those years, did its first place of rest
Rule all the world. The bird of God defied
The wind that brought Aeneas first to Rome
Through marriage with Lavinia. Flung wide
To Europe’s edge, it reigned in its new home,
Byzantium, two hundred years at least—
10 Close to the mountains where it first took flight
To travel with Aeneas from the east
Into the west. And there, in all its might,
Under the shadow of its sacred wings,
It held the world, and passed from hand to hand
That held it, till the one in charge of things
Was I, Justinian. In that far land
I reigned as Caesar. By the First Love’s will—
Which I could feel within—I trimmed the laws
Of all their folderol and overkill.
20 Before I set my effort to that cause,
I still believed the heresy that Christ
Had just one nature, which was all divine
And never human. That idea of Christ
I was content with, and I called it mine
Until Pope Agapetus spoke to me
Describing the true faith, which I believed,
As you yourself can see transparently
That any contradiction is achieved
Only between the true and the untrue.
30 As soon as I walked with the Church, it pleased
God in his grace to spur me to the new
High task, and by it I was wholly seized,
And my dear Belisarius obeyed
My orders to take arms, and he was blessed
By God’s right hand, and so much ground was made
In our name, that I took the sign to rest
From battle, and devote myself to peace.
Here ends, then, the brief answer to your first
Question, and yet its tenor begs increase
40 To my response, so you, so long immersed
In faction fights to counter or to claim
The holy standard, may see why they act
That way: how courage brought the banner fame
And reverence, all of which began, in fact,
When Pallas, fighting for Aeneas, gave
His life to found the city where it flew
And flies again, designed by God to wave
Above the Church if not the Empire. You
Well know the eagle stayed three hundred years
50 In Alba, till at last a fight took place
For its sole sake, when three from there crossed spears
With three from Rome. Both teams, matched face to face,
Had Trojan blood, but only one could win:
The one from Rome. Then, under seven kings,
The city saw its outward reach begin.
You know that too, and know of all the things
The eagle did. The rape of the Sabines,
Lucretia’s suicide, the neighbours cowed
In all the realms. Oneness, it meant and means:
60 The banner borne against the Gauls (allowed
By Brennus to get close) and borne against
Pyrrhus and other princes and communes—
A list that lasts forever once commenced.
All those proud Arabs brought from the sand dunes
Of Africa to cross the Alpine peaks
By Hannibal—the crags you fall from, Po—
The eagle brought them down, as history speaks.
Under that flag, such youths as Scipio
And Pompey had their triumphs. To that hill
70 Fiesole, where you were born, it proved
Bitter. Then, near the time when Heaven’s will
Decreed that all the world at once be moved
To match its state of peace, the holy sign
Was grasped by Caesar, at behest of Rome,
And so the earthly realms were brought in line
With Heaven. Where the wild Gauls had their home
Across the mountains, where the rivers run
In all the valleys of the Rhone from Var
To Rhine, the fighting tribes bowed, every one,
80 And then the banner, having come so far,
Turned back with him across the Rubicon—
A flight beyond what tongue or pen can tell—
And then it went where Pompey had moved on.
To Spain it wheeled the host, and then, as well,
Durazzo, and Pharsalia. Pompey gone
To Egypt, his last grief came to a head.
The head was his. Caesar, not knowing this,
Continued his pursuit, and so was led
To where Troy once had been. Nor did he miss
90 The sight of Hector’s tomb. And then he came
To Egypt, whereupon the banner shook
With rage at Ptolemy, then fell in flame
On Mauretania, where Caesar took
The throne of Juba. Once more westward then
The banner flew, to Spain, where Caesar stilled
The trumpets of the last of Pompey’s men.
It dipped in Rome when Caesar’s blood was spilled.
With his successor the flag flew again,
And that inheritor ensured by deed
100   Brutus and Cassius would howl in hell,
And Cleopatra, too, that broken reed,
Still weeps. She fled before the flag as well,
And from the viper took, with dreadful speed,
Her death. On with Augustus, the flag’s flight
Reached the Red Sea. With him it gave the world
Such peace the shrine of Janus was locked tight
While that great hand held high the cloth unfurled.
But everything the flag that moves my speech
Had done till that time and had yet to do—
110   Though all the mortal world its rule could reach—
Seems small and dim and its achievements few
Compared with what it did when held on high
By the third Caesar. To Tiberius
The glory went—when seen with a clear eye
And right mind, this truth is revealed to us—
Of bringing fit revenge on Adam’s sin
By crucifying Christ. Pilate’s assent
To that death proved divinity was in
The emperor’s hand, and Living Justice meant
120   The eagle. (By this justice I, too, am
Inspired.) Now be amazed at what I say:
For, next, with Titus, it ran on to damn
And blast Jerusalem, all in the way
Of proper punishment for that first act
Of vengeance. After that, the Lombard tooth
Bit Holy Church. Charlemagne counter-attacked
Under the eagle’s wings, and fought for truth
And saved her life. Now you can judge, in fact,
Those faction-men that I before accused
130   Of their offences, cause of all your ills:
For by the Guelphs, the fleur-de-lis is used
Against the eagle flag, which yet fulfils
The role of banner for the Ghibellines—
By which group is the banner more abused?
So let the latter faction, by all means,
But with another flag, keep up their arts,
For he who splits the banner so it leans
Two ways, splays its intentions in two parts:
Eternal justice, and the shifting aims
140   Of politics. This new Charles of Anjou,
The weak one, ought to moderate his claims,
And not imagine he can really do
Much to the talons that have dragged the skins
Off many bigger lions than him. The sons
Weep often for the way a fault begins
With their own fathers, and so folly runs
In families. Let young Charles not think the Lord
Will change his eagle-bearing coat of arms
For sprays of lilies, nor that a toy sword
150   And putty shield will work like lucky charms.
Now to your second question I afford
An answer. They adorn this little star,
Good spirits who did what they did to earn
An honoured form. And when it goes so far,
The will for fame, that it can even turn
Honour to glory’s ends, then it must mount
More than the rays of true love, which lose force
Accordingly. But when we make the count
Of our reward and our desert, of course,
160   Part of our joy is in the way we find
It neither less nor more. With even hand
The Living Justice sweetens to the mind
His judgement just because we understand
That justice has been done, and true desire
Can never be warped to evil. Thus we see,
As different voices join in the sweet choir,
So different rankings make sweet harmony
Among these starry wheels. Within this pearl
There also shines the light of Romeo,
170   Who came to Provence as the merest churl
To serve Count Raymond Berenger, and so
Successful was his management, his liege
Tripled in wealth and saw four daughters wed,
Each as a queen. But envy soon laid siege
To Romeo’s position. Things were said
By crafty tongues that flattered the Count’s ear,
And foolishly he listened to their lies.
He asked his faithful servant to appear
With all the bills, to judge, with clouded eyes,
180   How every penny had been spent. The end
Had come for one who could have done no more
To make his lord rich, and thought him a friend.
Thus from the court he came to, young and poor,
The faithful Romeo left poor and old,
And if you knew the mighty heart he had,
Begging his bread by scraps, out in the cold,
You’d think him something more than merely sad—
And call his smug foes stupid to be glad.”