Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 1–3 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 1–3

More favourable waters now invite
A raising of the sails on the small craft
Of my poetic gift, so she runs light,
Leaving the heavy sea retreating aft
That crushed her prow, but now lies in her wake.
For I will sing now of that second realm
Where souls are purged and so made fit to take
The path to Heaven. As I hold the helm,
O holy Muses, here let poetry
10 Arise again from death, for I am yours.
Bring forth Calliope to be with me
And join, with her sweet voice that Heaven adores,
My song, as once her lilting measures turned
Those mournful girls to magpies when they dared
To taunt her, as from Ovid we have learned.
Poor daughters of Pierus, they despaired
Of pardon, with their earthbound effort spurned—
They sang for Titans, but she made them cry.
The sweet clear tint of sapphire in the east
20 Gathered to make serene the sweep of sky
From zenith to horizon. It released
The gladness in my glance again, for I
Had weathered the dead air that never ceased
To weigh down on my heart, and hurt my eyes.
The comely planet that prompts us to love,
Veiling the school of pretty fish that lies
Each springtime in her train, was there above,
And she made all the east laugh. To the right
I turned, and on the other pole I set
30 My mind, and saw four stars that were a sight,
Seen by the first men, that has never yet
Been seen again. The sky seemed to rejoice
In these four flames. North, you’re a widow, since
You are denied that sight! I made the choice
To take my gaze back from those merry glints
And turned a little to the other pole.
The Wain was gone already, and I saw
Beside me an old man alone, his whole
Aspect deserving of a reverence more
40 Profound than any owed by any son
To any father. His long hair and beard
Were streaked with white; the hair, two streams from one,
Fell on his breast; and on his face appeared
The light of those four holy stars to make
It seem as if he faced the sun. “And who
Are you,” he said, giving his locks a shake,
Those signs of honour, “You that have come through
And fled the eternal prison, even though
The blind stream was against you? Who’s your guide?
50 Who was the lamp that lit your path to go
Free from the deep night that from side to side
Blots out Hell’s valley with perpetual dark?
How are the laws of the abyss defied?
Has Heaven decreed that those who bear the mark
Of doom, the damned, should come to my cliffs now?”
My Leader then with speech and hand and sign
Directed me to reverence, knees and brow,
And then he said: “The idea wasn’t mine
To come here, but a lady came to me
60 From Heaven, and according to her prayers
I gave this living man my company
To help him through the darkness to the stairs.
But since you wish to have it made more plain
How things in actual fact stand with us two,
I can’t deny you. This man, in such pain,
Had still not seen his last hour. It was due:
Folly had brought him near, and almost all
His time was gone. I was, as I said, sent
To save him in the last part of his fall,
70 And had no way except the way we went
To get him out. I showed him first the race
Of guilty shades, and now propose to show
The spirits to him of a different place—
Spirits that in your tutelage, Cato,
May purge themselves. But it would take a book
To tell you how I brought him through to here.
Enough to say that what it really took
Was virtue from above, which still keeps near
To help me give him you, so he may look
80 And listen. May it please you now to bless
His coming. He seeks liberty from vice,
A freedom dear to him, to you no less:
He knows who gives his life as sacrifice
For such a prize. You know it too, for you
In Utica, faced with the cruel defeat
Of your great cause, did what you had to do
And were not bitter, and your flesh will meet
Its true fate on that Day of Judgement when
It will come back in splendour, as you shed
90 It long ago out there with honour. Men
Don’t break eternal laws. This man’s not dead,
And Minos doesn’t bind me. I am of
That circle where your Marcia’s chaste eyes
Now lie, she who still prays with looks of love
That you should hold her, Holy Breast, and prize
Her for your own, as you did up above
When she came back to you. Incline, therefore,
To us, for her sake. Grant us right of way
Through all your seven kingdoms. I’ll be sure
100   To tell her of your kindness on the day
That I return to Limbo, if you deem
It fitting to be spoken of down there.”
“My Marcia so put the very gleam
In my eyes when I once breathed the world’s air
That I did any kindness that she sought.
But now she dwells beyond the Acheron:
She can no longer move me in my thought.
That law was made the moment I was gone
From there. But if this heavenly woman guides
110   And moves you, as you say she does, there’s no
Need of fair words. On high the power resides:
Enough to ask me for her sake. So go,
And bind him with a straight smooth rush to mark
His humble advent, and his face wipe free
Of any dirt. The eyes may not be dark
With fog for anyone called in to see
The first of all the ministers who keep
Watch on the road to Paradise. Around
This little island’s edge, when from the deep
120   The waves come in and fall, there can be found
The rushes that you need. In the soft mud
They grow like nothing else that puts out leaves
Or hardens, though the waves fall with a thud.
But don’t come back this way. This way deceives
By looking easy, but leads back to Hell.
The sun’s up. Take the better road it shows
For going up the mountain. Now farewell.”
He vanished, and without a word I rose
And drew close to my Guide, and fixed my eyes
130   On him. “Follow my step,” he said. “Let’s turn
Around. This plain slopes down to where it lies
Bounded by water.” Dawn began to burn
The morning breeze away, and far away
It lit the trembling sea. We moved across
The lonely plain, as one who goes astray
And, looking for his path, still feels the loss
Until it’s found again. Then, when we came
Into a shaded place where drops of dew,
Safe from the sun, stayed more or less the same,
140   My Master laid both hands spread in full view
On the wet grass. Knowing his purpose, I
Offered my tear-stained cheeks, and he revived
All of the colour underneath the dry
Tears that I cried in Hell. Then we arrived
On a deserted shore that never sees
A man who sails its waters and yet knows
How to return. My Guide, as it might please
Another, girded me. The plant he chose—
Ah, miracle!—so lowly, though thus torn
150   From where it grew, was instantly reborn.
The horizon whose meridian at its height
Covers Jerusalem had by now been
Reached by the sun, and, step for step, the night
That circles opposite in the unseen
Was climbing from the Ganges with the scales
That it lets fall when dark outlasts the day,
As if the power of its fingers fails
In winter, and it can’t take what they weigh.
So, where I was, the white and rosy pink
10 Cheeks of the fair Aurora, as her age
Increased, were turning orange. Made to think,
We tarried by the sea’s edge at that stage,
As those who seek the road at heart may go
Onward but in their bodies pause. Look there!
Just as, when morning nears, we see the glow
Of Mars, rose-red in the thick misty air
Above the ocean floor and lying low
To decorate the west, so there appeared
To me a light that came across the sea
20 So fast no flight could match it as it neared.
I took my eyes off it to ask my Guide
“What is it?” I looked back to see it loom:
Its size and brightness had both multiplied.
On either side it put forth a white plume.
Two plumes, but were they plumes? And bit by bit
Below them came a third white plume. And still
My Master said no word concerning it,
And what its three white plumes might be, until
The first two unmistakably were wings,
30 And then, the pilot clear to him at last,
He said: “Bend, bend your knees, for this boat brings
The Angel of the Lord! Clasp your hands fast.
From here on you will see such ministers.
See how all human tools are scorned by him.
For him no oars or sails. No, nothing stirs
Or swells except his wings to make him skim
From shore to distant shore. See how he holds
Them raised toward the sky. The air is swept
With everlasting pinions: pleats and folds
40 Of feathers that will be forever kept
Pristine, and never change as even fine
Plumage will always do on Earth.” And as
He came close it was clear he was divine,
For he grew brighter than men’s vision has
The strength to bear, and down I cast my eyes,
And with his fleeting boat he touched the shore,
A boat so quick and light it almost flies
Above the water, which gives way no more
Beneath it than as if it had no weight.
50 The steersman on the poop-deck stood still now:
Stood so his blessedness that was so great
Seemed written on him, and that boat, from bow
To stern, had, sitting in it as it slid
Ashore, more than a thousand spirits. “When
Israel,” they sang in Latin—this they did
With one voice—“out of Egypt came . . .” Right then
They sang it all as written. Then he made
The sign above them of the Holy Cross.
They flung themselves, as if they had obeyed
60 His order, on the beach. With little loss
Of time—as fast as he’d arrived, in fact—
He left. The crowd remaining there seemed new
To this place. They were caught up in the act
Of testing something. As new people do,
They gazed about. And on all sides the sun
Volleyed the day, and Capricorn was chased
With keen-tipped arrows from the zenith. One
And all the new arrivals rose and faced
Towards me, saying: “If you know the way
70 To reach the mountain, tell us.” Virgil, thus:
“You think we know this place? We came today,
Just before you. It’s all as strange to us
As it must be to you. The way we came
Was different, and so bitter, hard and rough
That now the climb before us will seem tame.”
The souls, who had already seen enough
Of how I breathed to know I was alive,
Turned pale with wonder, and as if to see
The bearer of an olive branch arrive
80 And hear his news they all had rushed headlong
Uncaring who got crushed, so one and all
Of these most favoured souls gazed at my face
Transfixed, as if forgetting their first call—
To go and become beautiful. With grace
One came to me, and with such warmth that I
Met his embrace with mine, I was so moved.
Ah, shades! Your looks seem solid, but they lie!
Three times I held him and three times it proved
That I in vain had clasped my hands behind
90 His back and brought them back to meet my breast.
My face displayed the wonder in my mind,
I think, because the shade made manifest
His pleasure in a smile, and then withdrew
As I, to follow him, stepped forward. He
Gently suggested that I stand. I knew
Then who he was, and bade him talk to me
A little while. He said: “As I loved you
When I was mortal, so I love you still
Now I am free, and therefore I remain.
100   But you, why do you want to climb the hill?”
I said: “Casella, only to regain
The place I came from do I take this road.
But now you’re here, how much time have you lost?”
And he to me: “He stays true to his code.
He takes up who he wants—there was no cost
To me—and when he wants. If many times
He has denied me passage, these are just
Decisions on his part, and never crimes.
A righteous will frames his will. What he must,
110   He does. Nevertheless, for three months now
Without fuss he has taken all who would
Embark, and I, well, I had come at last
Down to the Tiber’s mouth, and there I stood
Where water that was fresh turned salt, and he
Gathered me in. For he has set his wing,
Through all this year of Papal Jubilee,
On visiting that river mouth, to bring
Those crowded souls away who do not sink
Down to the Acheron.” And I: “If no
120   New law forbids you now to even think
About the thing you once could not forgo,
If you can still remember and still do
What you once did, make music for a song—
And the very first to set my words was you,
Your songs of love lulled me when I would long
For anything—so may it please you here:
Refresh my soul with music for a while,
For with my body it grew tired from fear
And effort on the road from mile to mile
130   With nothing lovely to placate the ear.”
“Oh love, that speaks,” he then began to sing,
“Speaks in my mind . . .” he went on, and so sweet
Were words and notes together, like one thing,
That still today the song stirs to repeat
Its clear lilt in my memory, lingering,
Always the same and never changing. I,
My Master and those people there with us,
Seemed as content as if, while time went by,
Nothing remained to think of or discuss,
140   When suddenly the old one cried “What’s this,
You laggard spirits? What’s this negligence?
Why the delay? All this is artifice!
Run to the mountain, for your slough prevents
God’s being clear to you. It must be stripped
From you. Yes, you are here to be made clean.”
As doves, collecting when their food is tipped
Where they can get their beaks to it, are seen
To pick up wheat or tares, with little sound
And nothing of their usual show of pride,
150   But they will leave their food there on the ground
If something comes to scare them, for beside
Their new concern, their first concern turns pale,
Just so I saw that troop of fledglings go
Towards the slope, and heard their last notes fail.
They left their song, but did not seem to know
Where to go next, yet had no time to waste—
And we went too, and went with no less haste.
While they were scattering in their sudden flight
Throughout the plain, I turned my gaze to meet
The mountain, where by reason at its height
We are examined. Think of the defeat
I would have met without my true friend near.
So near I drew, for how would I have fared?
Who else would take me up that hill from here?
And yet he seemed somehow not to be spared
From self-reproach. Ah, pure and dignified
10 Of conscience, how a tiny fault can sting!
When his feet slowed down from the hasty stride
That drains the dignity from anything,
My mind, till then restrained, was newly keen,
And with that wider range I set my face
Towards the hill that from the sea is seen
To rise high in the search for Heaven’s grace.
Behind me and above, the sun flamed red.
Before me, the ground shone around the shape
I made when sunlight stopped at me instead.
20 I turned to one side with my mouth agape
In fear that I been abandoned when
I saw that only I thus turned the ground
To darkness, but my Comfort asked me then:
“Why so distrustful? Have you not yet found
That I am always with you, I, your guide?
Now it is evening where my body lies
With which I cast a shadow. I abide
In Naples, sent there as a treasured prize
From Brindisi to mark the fond esteem
30 Of great Augustus. If no shadow now
Is thrown before me, may its absence seem
No more a marvel to your mind than how
The heavens do not block each other’s rays.
The Force that makes our bodies fit to bear
Torments of heat and cold has secret ways
Of which we cannot hope to be aware,
And he’s a fool who thinks our reason can
Trace all the paths one substance takes in three
Persons, for they are infinite. Mere Man!
40 The quia, the mere fact, is bound to be
What you must be content with, for if you
Had ever been enabled to see All,
Then Mary would have had no need to do
The thing she did, and give birth. You’ll recall
How you have often seen men’s vain desire
That their desire to see things whole—a grief
Eternal—should have leeway to retire.
Not only Plato yearned for that relief
But Aristotle too, and many more.”
50 And here he bent his brow down, and he fell
To silence, looking troubled and unsure.
Meanwhile, the mountain. We saw all too well
The way its foot was a sheer cliff so steep
The nimblest legs could not have been of use.
From Lerici to Turbia, you’d keep
Your feet more easily where, broken loose,
The rock lies wildly strewn, but still presents
A staircase easier than this. “Who knows
Which side to scale the slope on makes more sense,”
60 My Master said, his steps stayed, “so that those
Who have no wings may climb?” And while his face
Was held down, and he pondered the best way,
I gazed up round the rock, and in one place,
There on the left, appeared a whole array
Of souls, who moved towards us, and yet so
Slowly they seemed not to approach. “See there,
Master,” I said, “these ones might let us know
The answer for which you seek everywhere
Within yourself, if you just lift your gaze.”
70 He did, and with an air of one set free
From some weight on his mind, said “Our best way’s
That way, for they come slowly. You must be,
Dear son, firm in your hope.” Those people still
Were at the distance—after we had gone
A thousand paces—that a slinger will
Attain with a good hand, when, hard upon
The high bank’s solid wall they pressed against,
They stood close-packed and still, as men will pause
To look when not yet from their doubt dispensed.
80 “You that have ended well, souls that with cause
May call themselves elect,” declared my Guide,
“By that peace which I do believe awaits
You all, tell me the slope that meets the stride
With favour, for a waste of time frustrates
The wise the most.” As sheep depart the fold
By one and two and three and all the rest
Stand timid, and down to the ground they hold
Their eyes and muzzles, and the first is pressed
From back there by the others if it slows,
90 Since they all do what it does, and do that
Simply and quietly, and not one knows
Quite why, if one stops, all stop, these were at
That same point. Those who led the lucky flock
Came forward, modest, dignified. But when
They saw that on my right I made a block
For light, so that my dark shape walked again
Between me and the cliff, they stopped in shock,
And back a pace they drew, so all who came
Behind, not knowing why they should have done
100   What everyone in front did, did the same.
“Before you ask, let me tell everyone
This is a human body that you see,
By which the sunlight on the ground is split.
Don’t marvel, but believe, that he can’t be
Without the aid of Heaven’s power to pit
Himself against the wall he comes to climb.”
Thus Virgil, and a spokesman for that group
Of worthies said: “For just a little time
Turn back, and then go on before our troop.”
110   (The hand, reversed, at this point made a sign.)
“Whoever you might be, turn, as you go,
Your face, and think if ever you saw mine
Out there.” I turned to him. I tried to know.
I looked. He was fine-featured and fair-haired,
A noble presence, but a blow had cut
One of his eyebrows through. When I had spared
No humble words to tactfully rebut
Any suggestion I had known him, “Look!”
He said, and bared, high on his breast,
120   A gaping wound. “Behold my open book!
Yes, I am Manfred, torn up from my rest
And thrown out of the Church’s lands. Grandson
To Empress Constance. Thus I beg of you,
Visit my lovely daughter when you’ve done
Your time here and go back. Mother of two
Kingdoms, of Sicily and Aragon,
If she has heard another tale, she ought
To hear the truth. When life could not go on,
My body cleft by two strokes, I then thought
130   To yield myself to Him who freely gives
His pardon. Yes, my sins were horrible.
But the healing goodness that forever lives
Has arms so wide they take in all who will
Turn to it. If Cosenza’s bishop, sent
By Clement to hunt me, had rightly read
That page of God that says he whose intent
Is to approach Me shall be housed and fed
And not cast out, then still my body’s bones
Would now, at Benevento’s bridgehead, lie
140   Under the shelter of those heavy stones
Stacked in a cairn. They would be warm and dry.
But now the wind is at them, and the rain
Soaks them, beyond the Kingdom, by the stream
That marks the border: bones brought in disdain,
With tapers quenched. But though the pastors deem
A man heretical, he can’t be lost
To that point where eternal love can’t save
His soul, if hope keeps love free from the frost,
And evergreen. It’s true that if the grave
150   Opens for one denied the sacraments
By Holy Church, he must stand on the sill—
No matter how intensely he repents—
For thirty times the time he set his will
Presumptuously high, if holy prayers
Don’t shrink his sentence. So now, if you can,
Bring gladness to me in my present cares,
By telling the good Constance of the man
Whose soul you saw here, sadly made to wait—
For prayer from elsewhere can unlatch the gate.”