Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 13–15 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 13–15

Now we were on the top step of the stair,
A cutback in the mountain greeted us
A second time: there was a terrace there,
Ringing the hill with lesser radius,
And thus a sharper curve. No shade, all bare,
No carving. Just the blank road and the bank,
The livid stone. “If we should wait to ask,”
The Poet said, “our choice may, to be frank,
Be left too long.” And so he made his task
10 To stare into the sun, and of his right
Side make a pivot, and bring round his left.
“You that I trust on this new road, sweet light,”
He said, “to show us through the warp and weft
Of this place we need guidance in, you give
Warmth to the world to match the light you cast.
Unless Grace argues otherwise, we live
According to your beams from first to last.”
Already, there, we’d gone what we would call
A mile here—made quick by our eager will—
20 When we heard spirits flying that were all
Voices. Unseen they flew to us, to fill
The air around us with their biddings to
Love’s table. And the first voice that flew past
Shouted “They have no wine!” and as it flew
Beyond us cried the same thing, and at last
Was almost out of earshot when the next
Went by us crying “I’m Orestes!” Nor
Did that one stay. “Father,” I said, perplexed,
“What are these voices?” But there was one more.
30 It said “Love those from whom you’ve suffered wrong!”
My Guide: “The sin of envy meets its scourge
In this round, and of that scourge every thong
Flaying that disposition must emerge
From love. And thus the curb that speaks against
The sin must sing the virtue. You will hear
That sound, if I judge right, when we’ve commenced
Our entry to the Pass of Pardon. Near
Us now, if you look straight ahead, you’ll see
People before us, spaced along the cliff.”
40 With wider eyes I looked in front of me,
And there sat shades in cloaks that looked as if
They shared the colour of the stone, and when
We went a little further I heard cries
Of “Mary, pray for us,” of “Michael,” then
Of “Peter” and “All Saints.” Still my mind tries
In vain to think of just one man alive
On Earth today so hard he’d not have been
Transfixed by pity. Nor did I arrive
So near them that their movement could be seen
50 Without the eyes that saw them being wrung
By great grief. A coarse haircloth seemed to wrap
Their figures, and one from the other hung
On proffered shoulders, side by side, no gap,
All propped up by the bank. Just so the blind
And destitute turn up to beg at church
As if they sought indulgence, and you find
Them leaning on each other and you search
Your pockets, moved to pity not just by
Their words but by their looks which plead no less.
60 And as the blind take, from the sun on high,
Small profit, so the light brings no largesse
To these shades in this place I speak of here.
All had their eyelids stitched with iron wire
Like untamed falcons. And it did appear
To me that my effrontery was dire,
Seeing these others while I was unseen.
I turned to my wise Comfort. Well he knew
What my embarrassed silence had to mean,
And said “Speak to the point, but speak up, do.”
70 As we walked on the terrace past this scene,
Virgil was with me at the edge where one
Might fall, for that side had no parapet,
And on my other side I saw tears run,
Bathing the cheeks of those shades I see yet:
Devout shades, but their eyes were ghastly seams
Remorse, from envy, forced their weeping through.
To them I said “The one aim of your dreams,
To see the light on high, will come to you,
You may be sure, and grace will then soon clear
80 The scum your conscience builds, so that the flow
Of memory may run without a smear.
In view of that, pray tell me if you know—
And if you do, I’ll hold the kindness dear—
If anyone Italian is among
Your number. If I’m told, it may be well
For him.” And then I heard someone give tongue.
“Brother, there is a truth you need to tell:
All here are of one city. If there were
Any that lived in Italy, then say
90 They lived as pilgrims.” This polite demur
Came from, I thought, a little up the way,
So that I raised my voice. Among the press
I saw a shade marked by expectancy—
And if you wonder how I came to guess,
It raised its chin the way the blind do. “Be
Frank with me, spirit,” I said. “You that bow
To mount up high, if it was you I heard
Just then, your name and city tell me now.”
“Siena,” she replied, “and, in a word,
100   I cleanse myself here of my life of sin
Like all the others, weeping to Him, that
He give himself to us. Wisdom was in
My name but not in me. My name fell flat,
Sapia, for I rejoiced in others’ hurt
Far more than at my own good luck, and lest
You think that I deceive you, I assert
The truth: that when the arc had passed the crest
Of my years, I was mad already. My
Townsmen were in Val d’Elsa, but the foe
110   Joined battle with them. And that day, on high,
The thing was willed that I had prayed for. So
My nephew and his Ghibelline pigsty
Of suckers-up were hounded down the track
Of bitter flight, and, as I watched the chase,
Gladness beyond bounds seized me. I threw back
My head and aimed at Heaven my bold face,
Crying to God ‘I fear you now no more!’
Just like the blackbird when the sun returned.
Near death, I sought God’s peace, and I’d be sore
120   Pressed for a lessening—or so I’ve heard
It said—of all my debts by penitence
Had Peter the Comb-Seller, holy man
And hermit, not wrapped me in his immense
Mantle of charity. Yes, he began
To put my name in his petitions. Mine!
But who are you that, as he goes, enquires
About us, and, I think I can divine,
Speaks with the breath, whose eyes are free of wires?”
“I, too,” I said, “will lose my eyesight here,
130   But only for a little. My own sins
In envious looks were small. A greater fear
Suspends my soul until it slowly spins:
I mean the grief below. Brought on by pride.
That load is with me as this climb begins.”
And she: “You’re here with us. Who was the guide
That brought you up, if you think to retrace
Your steps?” And I: “He that is with me, who
Does not speak. And I live. Now, by the grace
To which you’ve been elected, spirit, you
140   Have not yet asked, as others in your place
Have done, if, yonder, I can speak and move
On your behalf.” “Ah,” she replied, “so strange
Is this to hear, that it’s enough to prove
God loves you. Somehow, then, you might arrange
To help me with your prayers. You I implore,
By what you crave most, if you ever tread
The soil of Tuscany, that you restore
My name among my kin. You’ll find them spread
Among that vain race who wait for their dream
150   In Talamone. Yes, our own seaport
One day, but now a long and fevered scheme
For losing money, of the self-same sort
As our eternal quest to find the stream
That flows beneath our land. Siena! Sail
On wings of fantasy! How can you fail?”
“Who’s this, that makes the circuit of our hill
Before death comes to him to grant his flight,
Who shuts his eyes and opens them at will?”
“I don’t know, though I do know to this height
He doesn’t come alone. But you ask first,
Since you are nearest. Make your greeting kind,
That he may speak.” In that way they rehearsed:
Two spirits propped together, of a mind
To talk with us. “Embodied soul,” one said,
10 “Who heads for Heaven, tap your sympathy:
Tell us your name and provenance. We’re led
To marvel not just at the novelty
Of your arrival here, but at the grace
You’re given.” I: “Through central Tuscany
A stream winds, whose beginnings we can trace
To Falterona, for a hundred miles
And more, and on its banks this shape was born.
My name? A man must make a name who styles
Himself by name, and blowing my own horn
20 Would make no sense, as yet.” And then the shade
Who’d spoken first said “If I have the wit
To catch your meaning, by those words you made
Allusion to the Arno.” “Think of it,”
The other chipped in. “Why did he conceal
The river’s name? Such secrecies are fit
For those to whom a horror is too real.”
The shade who’d been addressed said, “I don’t know,
But it is fitting such a valley’s name
Should perish, since for all its rancid flow
30 From far up in those mountains with the fame
Of having given birth to a large part
Even of Sicily—a source that teems
With many waters—with a racing start
Of far more than its share of brooks and streams,
From that source, all the way downhill to where
It gives back to the sea all that the sky
Draws from it so that rivers may be there,
For all the way that river meets the eye
Virtue is held an enemy by all:
40 A snake to flee from. This could be because
Of mischief in the ground, or you might call
The gift a custom, passed on without pause
Through generations, so that those who dwell
In that sad valley are now so debased
In nature, it might seem they might as well
Be Circe’s pigs, pastured on their own waste.
At first, through Casentino, among hogs
Who filthily eat acorns and prefer
That diet to man’s food, through ponds and bogs
50 It makes its feeble way, and then the spur
Of land that bends it brings it to the dogs
That snarl out of Arezzo more than they
Have any right to for their actual power.
From there, in scorn, it turns its snout away
And goes on falling, swelling by the hour.
The more it does, the more does the accursed
And ill-starred ditch find dogs transmogrified
To wolves, at Florence, which should be the worst,
But there is more, because, from either side
60 Hemmed in, it falls through gorges, down to meet
The Pisan foxes: lithe and full of guile,
They know no trap their cunning can’t defeat.
Nor will I, even for a little while,
Stop talking just because this mortal hears:
He ought to bear in mind that what I say
I am inspired to lay forth for your ears
By truth, and I see there will come a day
When your grandson, who hunts the wolves and sends
Them frantic in their fear, will sell their meat
70 Still living, and for many their life ends
In slaughter, like old cattle. It’s complete:
A double robbery. They lose their lives
And he his honour. From the wretched wood
He comes forth bloody, having cut with knives
The trees that will not once more come to good
Inside a hundred years.” As when bad news,
No matter where it comes from, pales the face
Of him who hears, I saw the other lose
Composure as these words sank into place.
80 The speech of one, the other’s look, made me
Eager to know their names, and so with much
Entreaty, I put questions, whereat he
Who spoke to me before said “You, by such
Demands, would have me do for you what you
Do not for me. But seeing that God wills
His grace to shine through you, this I will do
Without a grudge, a servant who fulfils
Your wish. Know, then, I am the Ghibelline
Guido del Duca. So did envy flame
90 In my blood, that no sooner had I seen
A happy man, but colour overcame
My features. I was livid. Here I reap
The straw I sowed. Ah, humans, why this urge
To set your hearts on what no one can keep
Except alone, so you can never merge
In partnership? But my companion here
Is Rinier, great Guelph, pride of the stem
Of Calboli, for none since has come near
Inheriting his worth. But all of them—
100   Not just his line alone—all have been shorn
In the Romagna, of their virtues, real
Or just for show, possessed or merely worn,
For in that land the ground by now, you feel,
Is so full of envenomed shoots, the plough
Would never get them out. But Lizio,
The good and courteous, where is he now?
Pier Traversaro and the kind Guido
Da Prata? And so many others. How
Is it that they are gone? The Romagnoles
110   Have turned to bastards. Tuscan, don’t be stunned
That I should weep for all those noble souls,
The ladies and the knights, the endless fund
Of stories about deeds and sports to which
Love moved us, and good manners. And now think
How hearts are grown malicious and are rich
In nothing but the depths to which they sink.
Ah, Bertinoro! My sweet nest! Where I
Spent years of safety high above lush fields!
How is it you don’t will yourself to die,
120   When all your finest families and their shields
Are fled from the corruption? Better far
Bagnacavallo, where they breed no more.
Both Conio and Castrocaro are
Worse off because the counts spawn as before.
Again, so many others . . . But enough.
Tuscan, go on your way, for now my choice
Is not to talk but weep, so much the stuff
Of our discussion wrings my heart.” His voice
Fell silent. Since we knew they heard us leave,
130   That they were mute made us more confident
Our way was right and it would not deceive.
And then again, as on alone we went,
Another voice, as if a lightning bolt
Should cleave the air, flew into us, and said
The words of Cain acknowledging his fault.
“Whoever finds me, slays me,” and it fled
As thunder, at the sudden cloudburst, dies.
And when our ears had just a moment’s rest,
Another roared as if to split the skies
140   Like one more thunderclap that closely pressed
Upon the first. “I am Aglauros, turned
To stone because my sister had the love
Of Mercury. I envied, and I earned
A place here.” On our way to high above,
I took a step aside, instead of straight
Ahead, so as to have my Guide’s support.
The air by now was in a quiet state
All round, and he: “That stretch, one would have thought,
Was hard enough to hold a man in bounds,
150   But not you. No, you took the bait. The hook
Of your old enemy, his sights and sounds,
Got into you. He reads you like a book,
And then no curb applies or prize appeals.
The heavens call you, whirl about you, show
Their endless beauty. You—and the mind reels
At all the petty stuff you crave to know—
See only the sad business of the Earth.
He smites you, He who knows what that is worth.”
Evening in Italy, and here, midnight.
The same amount the sun, that always plays
Between its tropics like a child, gains height
From dawn to the third hour, was, in the day’s
Last quarter, left to run, down where you are,
And here the beams struck us full in the face,
For we had gone around the hill so far
We headed straight into the west. The place
And time weighed down my brow more than before
10 By far, the splendour of it. But the cause
Being unknown, I was left dazed, and wore
My hand above my eyebrows without pause,
To temper the excess of light with shade.
As from the water or the mirror rise
All rays at the same angle that is made
When they go down, and so come to our eyes
With undeflected force and do not fade—
As science and experiment have proved—
Just so it seemed to me that I was hit
20 By such a light that my poor eyesight moved
Away at high speed. “Tell me, what is it
That I can’t shield my eyes from, gentle Guide,
And seems to come near?” “Do not be amazed,”
He said, “If Heaven’s household, glorified,
Still dazzles you and leaves you walking dazed.
This is a messenger, who has been sent
To call you to the climb, and very soon
The sight of these will hold no element
Of hardship, but indeed will be a boon:
30 Delight as great as you are fit to feel.”
The blessèd angel, when we reached him, said
With glad voice: “Enter here.” This soft appeal
Was further eased when we began to tread
A stairway less steep than the others. We
Were soon through, and were mounting, when we heard
“The merciful are blessed.” The melody
Was sung behind us, and then, word for word,
“Rejoice, for you have won.” My Guide and I
Ascended by ourselves, and as we walked
40 I thought to profit from his words. “So why
Did that one from Romagna, when he talked
Of ‘owners,’ ‘partners’ and what each can buy,
Think I would understand?” And he: “He knows
The cost of his worst fault, and so it’s not
A wonder he reproaches it, to close
The gap between himself and what he got
From envy: great regret. And as for you,
It is because your wishes are still set
On having more by sharing less, that through
50 Your heart the sin of envy even yet
Can blow its bellows and you sigh: but should
The love of higher things bend up your need
Away from one man’s sense of what is good,
That fear would leave your breast. For it is greed,
And there on high, the more who love the phrase
‘It’s ours’ more than ‘It’s mine,’ the more of worth
Each one possesses, and the more the blaze
Of charity in that court.” I then: “Dearth
Of knowledge deepens. If I’d held my peace
60 Before, I would have less perplexity.
How can it be that each one may increase
His share the more the more there are to be
Given the share?” And he: “Let wonder cease:
Because your mind’s still set on earthly things
You gather shadows from the light. Above,
The good is endless, beyond words. It wings
With all speed in the same way towards love
As sunbeams do to something bright. It gives
Itself the more the more of love it finds.
70 As charity extends, the more it lives,
And all the souls in love up there it binds
Together with more love. Love propagates,
Returning from a mirror. If my speech
Leaves you still hungry, then a feast awaits.
You will see Beatrice, and how she, from each
And every craving that you have, will make
You free. Seek only to expunge the five
Wounds you have left, though doing that will take
A painful healing. Grit your teeth and strive:
80 Two gone, and five to go.” And when I was
About to say “All right. Bring on the day,”
I saw we’d reached the right road, and because
My eye was keen, not one word could I say.
Visions of ecstasy held me enthralled.
A populated temple. At the door,
A woman, sweet-faced like a mother, called:
“My son, how can you do this to us? For
Your father and I seek you, and are sad.”
She said that, then she vanished. There came next
90 A further woman. On her cheek she had
The running waters of somebody vexed
With rancour at another. Fighting mad,
She said: “If you are Lord of Athens, whose
Name brought the gods to battle, and from which
All knowledge shines, then vengeance you should use
On those bold arms that fancied themselves rich
And well enough born to reach out and hold
Our daughter. Pisistratus! Justice calls!”
Her lord, it seemed to me, without being cold,
100   Was gentle, gracious, tranquil. “If it falls
To us to choose, what shall we do to one
That seeks our harm, if we should so condemn
Someone who loves us? Come, can this be done?”
But I saw others, and the case with them
Was otherwise. In wrath they slew a youth
With stones, and they were shouting “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
And down he sank to earth, because, in truth,
Already death weighed down on him, but still
His eyes were gates to Heaven even in
110   His agony, bidding the Lord bestow
A pardon on his killers in their sin,
And by his look you knew it would be so,
For it unlocked compassion. When my soul
From just itself came back to what was real
Outside of it, existence as a whole,
I saw that these dreams had been sent to deal
With things in my mind. And my Guide, aware
That I was fighting my way free from sleep,
Said “What’s wrong? Have you come back? Are you there?
120   For half a league or more I watched you keep
Upright with difficulty, your eyes veiled,
Your feet adrift as if fatigue or wine
Or both befuddled you.” And thus assailed,
I said “Kind father, such fault was not mine.
Listen, and I will tell you why I failed
To keep my feet. I saw something. But what?”
And he: “Had you a hundred marks upon
Your forehead, still your faintest thoughts would not
Be hidden from me. What you saw, now gone,
130   Was shown to you so you would not neglect,
From lethargy, to open up your heart
Before those peaceful waters that collect
First in the fountain where they have their start
And then pour forth eternally. Nor did
I ask what ailed you as one asks who sees,
Unseeing, someone lifeless, lying rid
Of all signs, but I asked it to appease
My urge to give your feet force, in their bid
To climb. So must the slow be spurred. They waste
140   Their waking hour when it comes back.” We went
On through the evening, and the way we faced,
Ahead, our concentrated gaze we sent,
Against the bright late rays, when, plume by plume,
Black smoke approached, and I mean black as night.
No getting out of it: there wasn’t room,
And soon it took from us our whole eyesight
And all our pure air, so we might as well,
Even up here, have been back there in Hell.