Poetry: Divine Comedy : Heaven, Cantos 7–9 | clivejames.com
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Heaven, Cantos 7–9

“Hosanna, holy God of hosts, who makes
Yet more resplendent with his brightness all
The happy fires that burn here for our sakes,
Lighting this realm in every hallowed hall!”
Singing these Latin-Hebrew notes, he spun,
That spirit upon whom a double light
Of earth and heaven joined to flame as one,
And I could see him sing, and heard the sight,
As he and all the rest moved in the dance,
10 And like the flight of quickest sparks were veiled
By sudden distance. I could not advance
Without doubt, for inside myself I quailed,
And told myself “Tell her, for she knows how
To slake my thirst with sweet drops.” But that awe
Which at her name unmans me even now
So that mere fragments of it start a war
In my soul (be, eat, at, ice) made me bow
Like one who falls asleep. She didn’t leave
Me long like that, but shone a smile on me
20 To make a man rejoice, instead of grieve,
If he were in the fire. “You doubt, I see,”
She said. “Your show of silence can’t deceive
My judgement, which is not subject to fault.
The question of Jerusalem has set
You thinking how a vengeful armed assault
Upon just vengeance can itself have met
Standards of justice. Let me free your mind
Right now. And listen, for my words contain
Great doctrine. Adam never sought to find
30 The limit to his will. It knew no rein,
Not even for his good. So, never born,
He cursed himself, and all his heritage.
Always conceived in sin, mankind lay torn
With sickness and in error from one age
Into the next, until God’s Word was pleased
To come down and unite what had been split:
Man’s nature, that He’d made, and Him. He seized
The first, and, to the second, added it
By one sole act of his eternal Love,
40 And all within Himself. Now turn your sight
On what must follow. Rescued from above,
Man’s nature, thus restored to share the light
With what had made it, once more good and pure,
By its own act was banned from Paradise
For having turned aside from the one sure
Way of the truth and its own life. The price
Was high. Compare the anguish of the cross
With what the human-natured Holy Word
Betrayed, and it was just, that painful loss.
50 But neither was there ever wrong incurred
To match the agony unleashed against
The human that the nature rested in.
From one act, diverse outcomes were dispensed:
The same death worked two different ways to win
Pleasure for God, and also for the Jews.
The earth quaked and the sky gaped. No more, then,
Should it seem harsh to you to hear the views
Of those who think just vengeance was done when
Just vengeance was avenged in a high court.
60 But now I see your mind is in a knot
Of tangled thought pulled tight through tangled thought
It longs to be released from. You say ‘What
I hear I follow: why God willed this way
To our redemption leaves me in the dark.’
Though this rule never sees the light of day
In anyone whose mind has missed the mark
Of growing as a flame to adulthood,
Yet since so many take aim with such zeal
And with so little sense, perhaps I should
70 Inform you why that way seemed the most real
Of all the ways that might lead men to good.
Goodness divine, which spurns all envy hence,
Burning within, so sparkles, it displays
All the eternal beauties. That intense
Ignition point sends out a further blaze
Without end, since its imprint, once embossed,
Does not grow pale. That which comes down like rain,
Free straight away, with not a droplet lost—
Nothing expended that it can’t regain—
80 Pays no heed to the power of changing things.
Conforming to that Goodness, it is more
Delightful to it, since the light that rings
The Holy Ardour puts its greatest store
Of brightness in what most resembles it.
Of all these gifts to man, if even one
Is lacking in full force, then it is fit
That he should fall from his place in the sun.
Nothing but sin can disenfranchise him,
And make him so unlike the Good Supreme
90 That, even lit by that light, he stays dim
And can’t regain his place and thus redeem
His Dignity, unless he fills the void
Made by his fault, and pays the penalties
Fit for a pleasure sinfully enjoyed.
Your nature forfeited these dignities
When first it sinned, back there in the first man,
Who bore the seed of sin, and you were torn
From Paradise, and not since time began
Could what you lost within you be reborn
100   Except by crossing one of these two fords:
God in his clemency is moved to spare
The sinner, or the sinner’s just rewards
For folly are offset through what he gives
By way of satisfaction. Fix your eyes
Within the unplumbed well where it most lives,
The Eternal Counsel. Closely scrutinise
My words. Within his limits, man could not
Ever give satisfaction, for so low
He could not humbly stoop—no matter what
110   Obedience he found it fit to show—
As he had thought, by disobedience,
To rise up, and this is the reason why
Man was debarred from any competence
To render satisfaction and go high
All by himself. And thus God was compelled,
By his own ways, to give full life again
To man through truth, or mercy, or the meld
Of both. But since to do good feels best when
The doer does it most from his good heart,
120   Goodness Divine, which shapes the world alone,
Was glad, in raising you for a new start,
To use both ways. Nor was there ever known—
Nor will be, in between the first of days
And last of nights—a process so sublime
And glorious in either of those ways,
Justice and mercy: not in all of time.
Giving Himself so man, if he would rise
Again, could do so, God was bounteous
Beyond what He would now seem in our eyes
130   If He had simply, and for His own use,
Granted a pardon. Other means fell short
Of justice. So the Son of God took on,
In all humility, a form of flesh.
But seeing all your doubts are not yet gone,
One point I’ll touch again and treat afresh,
So you may see it clearly. You say: ‘I
See water, I see fire, and air, and earth,
And all their blends, grow old and putrefy,
Not lasting long. Yet these things had their birth:
140   Creation, unless you told me a lie,
Should have preserved them.’ Brother, here’s what’s true:
The angels, and this spotless country here
Where you are now, you might say came into
Existence wholly as they now appear—
Immediately entire. But those things you
Have named (the elements, and mixtures made
From them), all these receive their being from
Those powers which themselves are second grade,
Virtues created here, in this kingdom.
150   Their matter was created, and the power
Of all the stars that wheel around them. Each
And every soul of animal and flower
Starts as a set of elements that reach
A complex balance fit to be inspired
By shining movement from the holy lights.
But your soul’s life is on the instant fired
By one abrupt breath from the height of heights:
The benefaction flows straight from its source
In Him, and so imbues the soul with love
160   Of Him: it wants to join Him with full force
For ever after, where He reigns above.
And from all this, it follows that you can
Argue your case for resurrection. Just
Recall how flesh was first formed into man.
For your first parents, too, rose from the dust
At one breath. Bodily decay began
Only with sin. Immortal life you lost,
But now you are redeemed. At what a cost!”
Venus of Cyprus—the world once believed,
To its great peril—radiated love,
Mad love, in her third circle as she weaved
Her wiles around this star, the centre of
Her crazed affections. Ancient people thought
(An ancient error) that not only she
Should have the honour of their full support
Through sacrifice and song, but Dione
Her mother, and her little son, Cupid,
10 Who lay, they said, in Dido’s bosom, where
He lit the fire for what that lady did
To lure Aeneas and to keep him there.
And from the goddess, with whom here I take
My start, the star-map makers took the name
Of Venus, she that finds two ways to make
Love to the sun, first with her morning flame
And then again at evening. I was not
Conscious of rising into it, but more
That I was simply there, a sense I got
20 Further assurance of, now that I saw
My lady grown more fair. And as within
A flame we see sparks, and within a voice
We hear another voice as both begin
To interweave, each making its own choice,
One holding close to the melodic line,
While the other comes and goes to harmonise,
So I saw lights within that light define
Their separate circles each in separate guise
Of speed, some swift, some slow, thus to accord
30 With their eternal vision, so I think—
And never, down from cold cloud, winds have poured,
Seen or unseen, quicker than eyes can blink,
As not to seem hamstrung to anyone
Who saw those lovely lights fly to our side,
Leaving the dance that they had first begun
Up there where the most powerful abide,
The Seraphim. And from those ranged in view
Before us, came “Hosanna,” with a sound
That ever since I’ve longed to hear anew.
40 Then one drew near and said this: “You have found
All of us ready at your pleasure. You
May have your joy of us. We circle round
In one orbit, with one thirst, at one pace
Along with those high princes you addressed
As ‘You that move the third exalted place
By understanding,’ and at your behest,
And just to do you pleasure for your grace,
A little quiet may be no less sweet—
Since we are all so very full of love.”
50 After my reverent eyes were raised to meet
My lady’s, and returned from there above
With notice of approval, they again
Turned to that light which had pledged me so much,
And I said “Tell me who you are.” And when
I spoke, I showed how deep had been the touch
Of that sweet vow to answer me. And then
I saw its size and incandescence grow,
Fuelled by the new joy added to its joys.
Thus changed, it said: “Not long the world below
60 Held me. For not a man’s life, but a boy’s,
I led. Had I lived longer, much that now
We know as evil never would have been.
My joy hides me from you, and this is how:
Its rays, cocooning me, keep me unseen,
A worm in its own silk. How you loved me
Had cause, for if I’d had more time to dwell
Down there, you would have had much more to see
Of my love than the leaves. I, Charles Martel,
Would have been there to offer you the fruits.
70 All of Provence I would have held as lord,
And everything of Naples to its roots
Down in Ausonia had been my ward,
And Hungary was set to be a crown
On my brow, shining, as the Danube flows
When it leaves Germany. And then look down
Beyond the end of where your own land goes,
To Sicily, which also had been mine,
Even that coast where the sirocco blows
In from the sea to scour the gulf’s curved line,
80 And Etna’s sulphur, not Typhon beneath,
Darkens the land which would have found its kings
Through me, to wear the future’s royal wreath,
Passed down from the conjoining line that springs
From Rudolph and my father. But bad rule
By Charles the First made such a botch of things,
The French were slain because one man was cruel,
One of their own, and so Palermo cried
‘Death, death to them,’ and if they could not say
The shibboleth, then on the spot they died,
90 And finally the rest were sent away.
And if my brother Robert learned from this,
He’d shun already the catchpenny greed
Of Catalans, and put due emphasis
On how the nobles from that country need
More stipends all the time. He should make sure,
Or someone should, there is no further load
Put on his ship, for it can take no more.
His forebears were large-hearted, but the road
Of royal charity runs out in him.
100   He’s mean, and should have chevaliers to serve
His cause whose first concern is not to skim
His income as if that’s what they deserve.”
And I: “Because, my lord, you see as well
As I do, the deep joy your words have filled
Me with—because you have a way to tell
Through that source by which all good is instilled
Into existence without end—so I
Am all the more glad, and I hold it dear,
That you see this in seeing God on high.
110   You’ve made me happy, and you’ve made things clear,
Because by speaking you’ve raised in my mind
The question how we come to get sweet seed
From bitter fruit.” And he spoke in this kind:
“The human character does not just breed:
God gives it to us, working through the stars.
I’ll show you how this is a truth you need
Before your eyes: your attitude debars
Real knowledge, and your back hides what is meant.
The Good that spins the kingdom of the skies
120   You climb, and makes the whole of it content,
Determines, in the world that lives and dies,
All that occurs, and works its will through these
Celestial bodies. All, all is foreseen
In the divine mind: the varieties
Of nature, yes, but also what they’ll mean
Disposed across the universal frame,
Thus forming the well-being of the whole.
For anything the bow shoots, it’s the same:
It falls contributing to that one goal
130   Of providence, an arrow to the mark.
If that were not so, this sky where you walk
Would generate confusion and go dark,
Make ruins and not art. Our senses balk
At such a prospect, for it would entail
Faults in the minds that move the starry wheels,
The First Intelligence would have to fail
In giving out the guarantees and seals
Of all perfections. Do you need this theme
Expounded further?” And I: “Not at all.
140   I see how nature, to complete its scheme
Can fail in nothing. It’s impossible.”
Whence he continued: “Think on this then. Would
A man be worse off if on Earth he were
No citizen?” And I: “That’s understood.
No proof is needed.” He: “Can that occur
(Citizenship) unless, in different ways
Men live below and do the things they do?
All this your Aristotle well portrays.”
He argued thus, and then continued. “You
150   Must know, therefore, your actions all diverge
At root. For one man, Solon, legislates,
While Xerxes fights, having a different urge.
Melchizedek’s a craftsman: he creates
In one way, but then Daedalus invents
The means to fly, and so his son is lost—
And circling nature, in the broader sense,
Employs one art. The mortal wax embossed
With her seal has no house that stands apart
From all the other houses. So it was
160   That Esau was not Jacob, and the heart
Of Romulus was no less great because
He was a peasant’s son. Indeed Rome thought
Mars was his father. All that are begot,
If Providence did not act as it ought,
Would echo their begetters, like as not.
As the divine decides, so men are wrought
To be themselves. Now what was held concealed
Behind your back you see before you. But,
Just so my joy in you can stand revealed,
170   Take this corollary and wrap it shut
About you, one more cloak around your gown:
Always, should nature meet with fortune ill
Adapted to it, then, like seed flung down
Away from its own soil, it can’t fulfil
Its usual expectations of success,
And if the world below could only set
Its mind on fundamental naturalness,
What men were meant to give you, you would get.
But you switch someone—cut out to profess
180   The art of wielding the long, war-like sword—
Towards religion; and you make a king
From someone whose proclivities accord
With preaching sermons; and that way you bring
Yourself to lose track, and lose everything.”
After your husband Charles enlightened me
In this way, fair Clemence, he then went on
To outline all the kinds of treachery
He knew his seed would meet when he was gone,
And then he said “But silence. Let the years
Revolve.” So there is nothing I can say
Except that, from your wrongs, deserved sad tears
Must follow. But the soul had turned away
Already—lamp inside that holy light—
10 Towards the sun that fills it, to the Good
Sufficient to all things. Ah, souls of night,
Creatures beguiled and void of reverence, would
You turn away your hearts from such a source
Of virtue, and seek vanity instead?
You would, alas. But now, on the same course
Towards me—and again such light was shed
The form was cloaked—another spirit moved
In brightness, and by brightening yet more
In silence, its desire to please was proved.
20 And Beatrice, too, by resting as before
Her eyes on me, without a word expressed
Assent to my desire. Then I: “Pray bring,
Blessed spirit, means to set my mind at rest
With all speed. I need proof of just one thing:
That when I think, I have no need to speak,
Since you’re a mirror that reflects my thought.”
The light, in whose depths I could only seek
Vainly to know who shed it, as I sought,
Continued, from the depths whence it had sung:
30 “In Italy, depraved land, where the hills
Climb behind Venice up to meet, among
The crags, the Brenta’s first pool where it spills
Out of the spring, and the Piave flows
To make its mark, there is a slope whence came
The firebrand Ezzelino. The world knows
He laid the district waste. That was his fame,
And I, Cunizza, was his sister. Here
I shine because this star’s light ruled my life,
And set Sordello singing in my ear
40 When I already was Riccardo’s wife.
He ruled Verona, but the troubadour
Took me away, and after him I fled
With Bonio, and there were several more
I loved, and then a couple more I wed.
But I forgive the cause of my warm ways—
This might seem strange to you and to your crowd—
Because it led me up into this blaze
Of love perfected. For the brilliant, proud
And precious jewel beside me, fame remained,
50 And will remain, from now, for five more turns
Of century like this one. It’s ordained,
Thereby, that man, from this example, learns
How striving in the first life to do well
Can bring a second life the first one earns.
But nobody observes that principle
Among the ragtag bunch that teems between
The Tagliamento and the Adige:
Though punished often, they are never seen
To get the point. Yet there will come a day,
60 And soon, when Paduans, because they balk
At duty to the emperor, will sprawl,
Spreading their blood where men wade as they walk,
In the marshland of Vicenza. And the tall
Proud head of that Rizzardo who commands
Treviso doesn’t know the web is spun
Already that will snare him. At the hands
70 Of Feltre’s bishop, evil will be done.
That godless one will give up those who take
Refuge with him, and so they will be slain,
And Feltre will weep long for that man’s sake,
So faithless, no one’s ever known the pain
Of being locked up in the Citadel
Of Padua who more deserved that fate—
Not even in its tower, that slice of hell
They nickname ‘Malta’ for the stony weight
That comes down on its dungeon, a cold roof
To match the muddy floor. For great indeed
Would be the vat to hold the liquid proof
Of how those Ferrarese in their need
80 Were sold out, and whoever gets the task
Of weighing out that spilled blood cup by cup
Will soon grow tired and lean against the cask
He pours it into. But the priest goes up
In the Guelph party’s eyes for this one gift
So courteously given, as befits
The custom of his country. Here we lift
Our thoughts aloft to where God’s judgement sits,
There where the mirrors shine that you call Thrones,
And from them shines on me the right to think
90 And say such things.” And then her singing tones
Fell silent, as she turned to form a link
Of that ring where she was before, or so
I guessed. The other radiant happiness,
Already known to me for its rich glow,
Became more precious yet, became priceless,
A perfect ruby struck with the sun’s fire:
For up there, every joy becomes more bright
Like laughter here, but here, when thoughts retire
In sadness, shadows spread through the delight
100   And it goes dark. I said: “God sees it all,
And how you see is in Him, so no wish
Can hide from you. How, then, does it befall
That your voice is an insufficient dish
To satisfy my hungers, though it shares
With singing six-winged seraphim the role
Of pleasing Heaven? Without splitting hairs,
If I dwelt in the centre of your soul
As you in mine, you would not need to state
A question.” He: “The giant valley where
110   The sea that girds the world spills through the gate
And spreads east through its misbehaving pair
Of shorelines so far that the day comes late
From east to west, the sea against the sun
Until Jerusalem’s meridian
And Spain’s horizon could be drawn as one
Right angle: there I lived my earthly span
In the area marked out, on the north strand,
Between the Ebro and the Magra, just
Across the water from the rocky land
120   Where Bugia lies, so each day the sun must—
In Africa and where I live—both rise
And fall at roughly the same time. And my
Marseilles, when Caesar took it as a prize,
Once made the harbour thick with blood. And by
People who knew my name there, I was called
Folco. This heaven here is stamped with love
As it stamped me. Dido was never galled
By passion—when it led her on to steal
Aeneas from his wife, and to betray
130   Her husband—more than I was when my youth
Had all its hair; nor she of Rhodope,
The Thracian princess, when she heard the truth
About her straying man; nor Hercules
Who died for love of Iole. Here, though,
We don’t repent, but rather, unlike these,
We smile—not for the fault that plagued us so,
Back there, but now does not come back to mind—
We smile to thank that Force which, in advance,
Both ordered and foresaw. For here we find
140   The object of our thoughts is in this dance
Of art, this beauty, this sublime result.
We see the good by which the world above
Wheels round the one below, and we exult.
But so you may, out of this sphere of love,
Take satisfaction for the wishes born
When you came in, let me speak more on this.
You’d like a name to fit this burst of dawn
Beside me, sparkling as the sunbeams kiss
The water. In this light, Rahab finds peace,
150   Who gave Christ’s envoys, though she was a whore,
Their lodging, so the lights of love’s increase
Attain here, as her just reward, far more
Intensity than she once knew, and now
She is with us, and of the highest grade
Our order grants: all other ranks must bow
To honour her, once last but now the first,
Since grateful Christ in triumph wished for it,
She sits up here in state where the dispersed
Last shadow of the earth ends. It was fit,
160   Indeed, some heaven should receive her as
A victory trophy for those sweet palms split
With nails, because she favoured—this cause has
No great place in the Pope’s thought—Joshua
And his first glory, Christ’s great sacrifice,
There in the Holy Land. But Lucifer
Planted your city, he whose whole device
Was to betray his Maker, and from whom
Hot tears of envy come. Your Florence grows,
And spreads, the florin, the gold flower whose doom
170   Is to mislead the sheep and lambs, for those
Follow the shepherds, who all have the jaws
Of raging wolves. For this, the Gospels sink
Into neglect, and all the holy laws
Of the great teachers. Students, taught to think
Mere canon law important, scrawl their script
In margins. Popes do this, and cardinals,
By self-esteem and scribbling fever gripped.
Their thoughts go not to Nazareth. Gabriel’s
Wings were once spread there. But the Vatican,
180   Where Peter died, and all those sacred parts
Of Rome where martyrs served that holy man
With soldiers’ deaths, will from those cheating arts
Of profanation be set free, and at
An early date, you may be sure of that.”