Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 10–12 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 10–12

When we were in the threshold of the gate
So rarely used because of misused love—
The fault that makes the crooked way look straight—
I heard it boom shut. Would I be excused,
I thought, if I should turn my eyes to it?
We climbed though a rock’s cleft which turned one way
And then the other in a manner fit
For waves, that flood and flee but never stay.
“Here it would suit to use a little art
10 And alternate the side we fasten to,
Since each moves close before it draws apart.”
So said my Guide about what we should do.
It made our steps so small the waning moon
Was back in bed and sinking into sleep
Before we left the needle’s eye. But soon
Upon that, in the open, where the steep
Mountain draws back, we found our freedom. I
Was weary and we both lacked certainty
As to the way. We stopped, to get the lie
20 Of the land, on a place that looked to be
As flat and lonely as a desert track
Edged by the void, walled by the mountain’s face.
In width it was a man laid on his back
Three times across. When I searched into space
As far as my keen eye could make its flight,
The terrace seemed to me to be the same:
Now on the left hand and now on the right,
No variation worthy of the name.
Our feet had not yet moved when I perceived
30 The curving wall, impossible to climb,
Was made of a white marble unrelieved
Except by carvings, calling up the time
Of Polycletus, though they would have shamed
Nature as well as him. The angel who
Came down to tell mankind—which had been blamed
For Adam—that there would be peace anew
And Heaven open now, had not been named
As Gabriel, but you could tell that there
He was, and carved so truly for his grace
40 Of attitude, he seemed to speak. One’s ear
Heard “Ave” as he praised the lifted face
Of her who turned the key to love supreme,
And in her bearing were the words “Behold
The handmaid of the Lord,” and did not seem
To be, but were, clear as a stamp may mould
A seal in wax. “Let not your eye grow fond
Of these alone.” He had me on that side
Of him that keeps the heart. I looked beyond
The news for Mary, and then took a stride
50 Past Virgil and drew near to make the bond
By eye with what was there. Carved in the same
White marble wall, the cart and oxen drew
The Sacred Ark. Sad Oza won his fame
By touching it, and men learned not to do
What God had not said. But there was no name:
Not his, nor anyone’s. There was no need
For that. Before the Ark appeared a crowd
Of seven choirs. Two senses disagreed:
“They’re silent,” said one, and “They sing aloud,”
60 The other said, prevailing. Similarly
The nose and eye disputed at the smoke
Of incense, for its lavish pungency
Was there and not there, and I smelt it soak
The air yet couldn’t see it. And now he,
The humble psalmist, more and less than king,
Before the blessed vessel, danced his dance,
Swathed merely in a cloth. To hear them sing
And watch the monarch pirouette and prance,
Michal, Saul’s daughter, and the king’s first wife,
70 Was figured at a window straight above,
And clearly she was sad about her life
And scornful at his show of higher love.
Past her I moved to where another tale
Gleamed white, the glorious deed of that great prince
Of Rome whose gift for justice without fail
Moved Gregory to intercede, and since
That day he has a place in Paradise,
And not in Limbo: Trajan. And a poor
Widow was at his bridle, and the price
80 She paid in grief was seen there to be sore:
Her posture and her tears. The place around
The Emperor was trampled by a throng
Of knights—and once again I heard the sound.
The eagles on the gold flags all along
The grand procession felt the wind and flew.
Among all this the widow seemed to say
“Avenge me, Lord, for my dead son. For who
But you can ease my grief ?” And he: “Today?
When I return.” And she: “My Lord, when you
90 Return?” Her grief was urgent. “You might not.”
And he: “Then he who takes my place will do
What you request.” And she: “What have you got
Of goodness if another does the good
That you forget?” And he, at last: “You’re right.
Take comfort, for I must do what I should
Before I go. Compassion for your plight
Asks me to stay, and justice orders me.”
Nothing was ever novel in His sight,
And yet He said these wise things visibly—
100   I mean that you could see the sound—and that
Was new to us, because unknown on Earth.
While I took such delight in gazing at
These images of such exceeding worth
In this depiction of humilities
Distinguishing the great, and in the skill
Shown by the Craftsman of that sacred frieze,
My Poet said: “Forget about the hill
For now, and look on this side. See them walk
Towards us, many of them, but with slow
110   Steps. They will tell us, if we make them talk,
The best way to the next stairs. They must know.”
My eyes, content by now with rich new things,
Were quick to turn to him. But, reader, don’t
Imagine I would have you fold your wings
And fall from good resolve so that you won’t
Know how God wants you to repay your debt:
Don’t linger on its form but think of what
Comes next, and that, as bad as things can get,
Beyond the great Last Judgement it’s not got,
120   And can’t. “Master,” I said, “these that we watch
Approaching us don’t seem like people, and
I don’t know what they are, such a hotchpotch
My vision has become.” “Please understand,”
He said, “the grievous nature of their test
Has bent them double, so that even my
Eyesight is barely adequate at best
As to their nature, but you may descry—
If you try hard to pick apart what shows
Beneath their folded form—how each is served
130   With castigation as he slowly goes,
Crushed by the stone that keeps him tightly curved.”
Christians vainglorious! Tired wretches who,
Made sick by the mind’s vision, come to trust
A backward step, is it not clear to you
That we are caterpillars born, and must
Become the angelic butterfly that sails
Defenceless up to judgement? Why does your
Poor mind float so high that it strains and fails,
Since you are half-formed insects and no more,
140   Nothing but worms? As when a corbel props
A roof or ceiling, there is sometimes seen
A figure, breast on knees, whose strangeness stops
The heart of him who sees it, so I’d been
Impressed by these, each one bent more or less
As his sore back had more or less to bear,
And one that looked resigned to his distress
Seemed also, by his weeping, to despair,
Saying “I’m finished” with his will still there.
“Our Father,” sang the shades in unison,
“Who are in Heaven, where you reign unbound
Except by the great love you place upon
Your first works, the high circles spread around
Your throne like ripples, hallowed be your name
And power by every creature, as is fit
That they give thanks for what remains the same
For ever, your sweet love, the warmth of it.
Your Kingdom, may its peace reach down to us.
10 If it does not, we may not, left alone,
Reach it, no matter how industrious
We are. And as your angels all disown
Their will, and sing hosannas, so let men
Yield their will too. Give us that daily bread
Today, without which he goes back again,
Through bitter desert, who most looked ahead,
And laboured for release and to advance.
As we forgive all those who do us wrong,
Forgive us by your heart, without a glance
20 Towards our just deserts. And now our song
Is not for us: but don’t put to the proof
Men’s doubtful strength against the enemy
Of old. Teach them instead to stand aloof
From him who stirs its evil wrath. Though we
No longer need this, Lord, we ask it for
Those who remain behind us. So we sing
Our Paternoster for ourselves and more.”
And thus beseeching fair wind and strong wing
Not just on their behalf but ours, they went—
30 Beneath their burden, as we sometimes dream
When we sleep badly, each a testament
To different weight of grief—done with their theme,
Their weary way around the terrace, all
Their effort dedicated to the purge
Of the world’s fog. We’d do well to recall
Their soft words, meant to help us, that emerge
Always for love, and ask what should be done
And said by us for them, granted our will
Is good. Thus we might profit many a one,
40 Washing the stains away they carry still,
So they may go, at last made pure and light,
To see the starry wheels. Then Virgil: “Pray,
In order that you soon attain the height
By spread wings lifting you when you will weigh
No more than your desire, which way to take
Is best for a short route to find the stair?
And if there’s more than one stair, for his sake
Who has come with me, and has clothes to wear
Of flesh like Adam’s so one goes to sleep
50 Watching him climb, although it’s only fair
To say he tries hard, which is the least steep?”
It wasn’t clear who spoke up in reply
To what my Guide said, but this was the speech:
“Come with us to the right, where he can try
A passage where a living man may reach
The next stage up. Were I not hindered by
This stone which keeps my neck bowed and ashamed
And makes me hold my face down, I would look
At him who still lives yet has not been named
60 To see if I know him, and if he took
Pity on me for this, my load of pride,
To thank him. I was born in Italy,
A Tuscan. Family, on my father’s side,
Aldobrandesco. I should say that he
Was actually Guglielmo. I don’t know
If his name might have been once known to you?
My forebears’ blood and great deeds made me so
Superb that I forgot how all men grew
To the common taste of milk. As you might know,
70 I scorned them all, and took my arrogance
So far I died from it. The Sienese
Will tell you how. They came to watch me dance
At home in Campagnatico, but fleas
Need time to kill a dog, and in the square
I rode and slew them by the bunch until
One of them got behind me. That day there,
My castle’s children all remember still.
I am Umberto. Pride, ah, would it were
On me alone that it had wrought its ill:
80 Gladly I would have been sole sufferer.
But all my kinsmen it has ravelled in
The same calamity. I bear the load.
You saw humility. Here see the sin
Of lacking it. And so I walk this road
Till God is satisfied. I never did
Any of this among the living. Now
I do it with the dead.” I heard, and hid
My face, and one of them, I don’t know how—
He had not spoken—twisted underneath
90 His weight, saw me, and watched me all the while
He laboured, and he called through gritted teeth,
As I went with them, bending in their style,
Which strains the spine in every little part.
“Aren’t you,” I said, “the pride of Gubbio,
That Oderisi, lauded for the art
That Paris calls Illumination?” “So,”
He said, “they call me, brother. But the palm
Goes to Bologna, where young Franco’s brush
Embellishes the pages with a calm
100   Intensity of form that makes me blush.
To him the honour, of which part is mine,
But no more. While I lived, though, I might well
Have taken on this point a different line,
Unbalanced by my impulse to excel.
But here, for pride like that, we pay the price,
And I would not be here yet, had I failed,
With power to sin, my boastful vice to quell.
I turned to God. Ah, how we are assailed
By empty glory in our skill! How brief
110   The green life of the leaves, unless an age
Of dead wood comes, to put it in relief!
But after Cimabue was the rage,
Make way for Giotto, hard upon his heels,
To dim his fame. And so it is with verse:
One Guido stands up as the other kneels.
It doesn’t mean that Guinizelli’s worse,
It only means that Cavalcanti’s new,
And takes the title, Glory of Our Tongue—
And chances are the poet who will do
120   The same to him’s already born, and young
And strong, and fit to chase him from the nest,
And once again sing what was never sung
Before, with turning head and puffed-up chest.
The world’s noise is the breath of a light breeze
Which goes this way and that and changes name
Only because it changes quarter. Please,
Convince me how you might have the more fame
If you die old than if you died before
You gave up talking baby-talk, and when
130   A thousand years have passed, which is no more
Than one blink to the universe, what then?
The slowest wheeling stars move one degree
From west to east in every hundred years—
The merest moment of eternity—
And fame we measure by our falling tears,
That flow for just a while, and then run dry.
Of him ahead of me who struggles on,
All Tuscany resounded, and now try
To hear a whisper of him. His fame’s gone.
140   Yes, even in Siena, where he reigned
When Florence’s high riders were destroyed.
So full of pride they were, and it was drained,
And now they are like cheap whores, to avoid.
Your fame, it is the colour of the grass
Which comes and goes because what withers it
Is what induces its green tips to pass
Up through the earth.” And I: “I must admit
Your speech makes my heart tremble, and abates
My own swelled head. But who is he of whom
150   You spoke just now?” “One of the one-time greats,
It’s Provenzan Salvani,” he said. “Room
Has here been found for him because he thought
In his presumption to have in his hands
All of Siena, so in pride he fought
And not against pride, until all those lands
Were his, and he has gone thus, without rest,
Since he met death. Such is the coin he pays
In quittance who, back there, would be the best.”
And I: “I’m told the spirit that delays
160   Too long in life before repenting must
Remain outside that door and not ascend
Thus far unless good prayers are paid in trust
For long enough to match, from end to end,
His lifetime, so how comes it he is here?”
“When he was in his prime,” the answer came,
“He chose—and his own shame he did not fear—
Siena’s marketplace to be the frame
In which he stood, a living portrait of
Humility, as ransom for a friend
170   Rotting in Charles’s gaol. This act of love
Was visible as suffering, to rend
The heart. His every vein and sinew shook.
I say no more, and know that what I say
Is dark, but soon your townsmen, who once took
Your part, will send you on a lonely way.
It was his self-abasement brought you through.
The bitter begging-bowl awaits you too.”
I and that burdened soul, as far as my
Sweet teacher let me, side by side went on
As though we were yoked oxen, brought low by
A load that curved us, all defences gone.
But then my Guide said “Now you must leave these
Behind, and move, for here it would be well,
With sail and oar and all your faculties,
To drive your own boat.” Quickly, truth to tell,
I straightened up my body, though my mind
10 Stayed bowed and shrunken. Scared of come-what-might,
I set out eagerly to stay behind
My Guide, both proving that our steps were light,
And he: “Turn down your eyes. It will be well
For you to make your path a pleasure by
Seeing the flags you tread, the tales they tell.”
As pavement tombs, to call up those who die,
Bear carved designs of what they were before,
For which so often tears are shed by those
Who have the gift of pity, as their store
20 Of memory is stirred, so there arose
From this unyielding and yet living floor,
The same sense of fine craftsmanship, but all
Of more verisimilitude, the whole
Breadth of the roadway from the mountain wall
Out to the edge. More noble in his soul
Than any creature, there see Satan fall
Like lightning from the sky on the one side.
Briareus, on the other, by the spear
Of Heaven pierced, lay heavy, petrified
30 By chill death. And Apollo, he was here,
With Mars and Pallas, all of them still armed,
About their father Jupiter. They gazed
On scattered giant limbs. Nimrod, alarmed
At his own cleverness, as if amazed
By his great babbling tower, stared at the charmed
People of Shinar, likewise proud of it.
Niobe! I saw you with crying eyes
Traced on the road, with company to fit
Your pride—alas, too late to make you wise—
40 Those fourteen helpless children slain. And you,
King Saul, you lay there dead on your own sword
In Gilboa, where never rain or dew
Would come again—abandoned by the Lord
For pride. And sad Arachne, you there too:
I saw you in the wrecked web of your thread,
Already half a spider, wretched, changed
From challenging Minerva. Every shred
Was there, and your new long legs were arranged
To show their bent joints high above your head.
50 Next, Rehoboam, King of Israel, whose
Depiction here seemed not to threaten, since
It fled by chariot as if to lose
Pursuers, but they weren’t there. So that prince
Proved how his father, Solomon, was sage,
By being foolish with his rates of tax,
Goading the usual rumble to a rage.
And that hard pavement showed, as if in wax,
How Alcmaeon once proved that sad pearl string
Was costly to his mother; how his sons
60 Fell on Sennacherib to kill that king
In his own temple. And you’d swear blood runs
Just here, where Tomyris tells Cyrus “Now
The blood you thirsted for is yours to drink,”
She’s talking to his severed head. Somehow,
Above the vat, his eyes appear to blink.
And here was Holofernes being slain,
And all his army of Assyrians
Fleeing in desperate rout across the plain,
Bereft of their proud leader and his plans:
70 I heard the slaughter, saw the cries of pain.
And Troy I saw in ashes. Ilion!
Pride brought your topless towers low, and vile
You were before you caught fire and were gone,
And these designs showed that in stunning style.
What master of the brush or chisel could
Have traced the shapes, incised the outlines there
Which even experts would have thought too good
For words? It seemed as if the living breathed the air,
And all the dead were dead. One who had seen
80 These actual things could not have seen them more
Clearly than I who saw all that had been,
As I went stooping. More now than before,
Chest out, head high and eyes front, sons of Eve!
Never look down to see your evil trail.
More of the mountain than I could believe,
We had encircled. That the sun could sail
So far so fast I’d likewise failed to guess,
Having been too absorbed, when he who gazed
Always ahead said: “Heads up! We have less
90 Time than you think for ambling round amazed.
Here comes an angel, as the time of day
Is marked by the sixth handmaid of the car
That hauls the sun. In flames she breaks away.
Make sure your look and general bearing are
Reverent to meet the herald. Let him be
Pleased to direct us. Days like this can dawn
Just once.” Used to his well-worn homily
That I should not waste time, I was not torn
As to his meaning. The fair creature stepped
100   Towards us. He was clad in white. His face
Trembled, a star at sunrise. His wings swept
Wide with his open arms. “This is the place,”
He said, “that has the steps. From here, ascent
Is easy. Yet few come to meet this call.
You race of men, from birth you all were meant
To fly: how is it you consent to fall
Back down again just for a little bit
Of breeze, a puff of glory?” Then he led
The two of us to where the rock was split.
110   He struck my forehead with his wings, and said
My journey would be safe, he’d vouch for it.
As on the right hand when you climb the hill
To San Miniato there are stairs to break
That long hard pathway steep enough to kill—
Stairs put there by a city that could make
The right decisions, guard its measures, still
Keep records—so the bank that came down there,
Steep from the upper circle, could be climbed
With ease, but still the hefty rock, laid bare
120   On each side, pressed in close. And then there chimed,
As we stepped in between, voices in tones
So sweet—“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—no
Mere words could match. But how these broken stones
Were different from the doors I’d come to know
In Hell, for here the entrance teemed with songs
And there with lamentations! Now as we
Mounted the sacred stairs—and here one longs
For one plain phrase that fits—I seemed to be
Far lighter than I was before. “What weight,”
130   I asked my Master, “has been shorn from me
That I so blithely go up through the gate,
Almost without an effort?” “When that mark
Of P repeated on your brow sixfold—
Which once was seven—has all grown less dark
And disappeared, divine goodwill will hold
Your feet in such a mastery that they
Will find not only ease but sheer delight
In being urged on upward.” Just the way
Those do when something unknown to their sight
140   Is on their head but they can guess by signs
From others that it’s there, and with one hand
They search for it and find it, on those lines,
With my right hand’s spread fingertips I scanned,
And did indeed find, just six times, the trace
Of that rune the keyholder with his brand
Had touched there to my brow, that tender place.
My Leader watched me with a smiling face.