Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 16–18 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 16–18

Neither in Hell’s gloom nor in cloudy night
Bereft of stars and planets, had I yet
Known in my life a veil that blocked my sight
So thick, of stuff so harsh, as that one set
To my eyes by the smoke that wrapped us there,
Choking the eyelids shut. Therefore my wise
And faithful escort moved in close, and where
His shoulder was, I felt, and in the guise
Of someone blind who stays behind his guide
10 To skirt what, knocked against, might hurt or kill,
So I edged through the foul and bitter tide.
He kept on saying—I can hear it still—
“Don’t get cut off from me.” On every side
Were voices, and they seemed to pray for peace
And mercy to God’s Lamb, that took away
Our sins. And always those hymns without cease
Had the same words, beginning “Agnus Dei,”
And just one measure, their accord complete.
I asked, “Are all these spirits that I hear?”
20 And he: “They are. The prayers that they repeat
Mean that they strive to bring the moment near
When they will lay the knot of anger loose.”
“Who are you that come here to cleave our smoke
And speak as if you tell time by the use
Of words that once were Roman?” one voice spoke.
My Master: “Answer, and make sure you ask
Is this the way up.” And I: “You that make
The cleansing of yourself your present task
So you may shine in fairness when you take
30 The road back to the one that made you, you
Will hear a marvel if you stay near me.”
“I will, as far as I’m permitted to,”
He said, “And if the smoke won’t let us see,
Hearing will keep us joined.” And then I said
“Wrapped in the flesh that death undoes, I find
My way up, and I came here through the dread
Reaches of Hell, and since God has a mind
To take me into grace, and I am led
Alive, like no one else after St. Paul,
40 To see His court, don’t hide from me, but tell
Me who you were, and if the entrance hall
To the next stage is on this road. Then well
May your words be our escort.” “I knew all
The world,” he said. “I, Marco. Lombard, I:
Lover of qualities for which they now
Can’t bend the bow to let the arrow fly,
Let alone hit them. Straight ahead is how
You go. I pray that when you reach the sky
You’ll pray for me.” And I to him: “I pledge
50 My faith to you to do what you now seek,
But still a doubt within keeps me on edge
To breaking point. What I have heard you speak
Doubles the doubt I brought here from Guido,
And so confirms the world must be indeed
Barren of virtue, as you’ve let me know:
With evil decked, and evil in the seed.
But now I pray you say why this is so.
Tell me the cause, that I may tell the world.
Some say the fault is in our stars, and some
60 It’s in ourselves.” And here a sigh unfurled,
Saying “Alas” for grief. “Brother, you come
Indeed from the blind realm, for you, that live,
Refer all causes to the sky alone,
As if it, only, had the power to give
Movement to things. Were it to wholly own
That property, however, all free will
Would leave you, and there’d be no justice in
Joy for good deeds or grief for doing ill.
The star-field helps your impulses begin.
70 I don’t say all of them, but if I did,
On good and bad and on free choice it shines:
Choice which, if it survives that first armed bid
To shape it, will be raised on the right lines
And conquer all. It’s to a greater force
And better nature you, since freedom’s yours,
Are subject. Therein lies the one true source
Of your mind, which the mere stars lack the laws
To rule. Thus, if the present world should veer,
The cause is in you, and it must be sought
80 In you. To prove this to you, I am here,
Your faithful scout. Just like a child in sport,
With tears and smiles, our little simple soul
Emerges from His hand. He looks at it
With fondness, though as yet it lacks the whole
Of knowledge, and so far is scarcely fit
To be considered as itself. It moves
Because its Maker moves it, when it turns
To what attracts it, and at first it proves
Each trifling good by taste, and what it learns,
90 Being beguiled, is to run after more,
If guide and curb don’t turn its love aside.
For law to be a brake on this, therefore,
There was a need, a law to override
The impulse of delight: need for a king
Fit to make out the tower’s tip at least
Of the true city. Law: well, there’s a thing.
The law exists, but by default has ceased
To be enforced. No emperor, and the Pope
Knows the law’s letter but ignores its heart.
100   Our shepherd, going on before, can cope
With worldly things, but the unearthly part
Escapes him. He has half the pastoral scope.
He chews the cud, but has not the split hoof,
And therefore is unclean: we may not eat.
Just watch the people, if you want the proof:
They see him snatching at the easy meat
They too are greedy for, and do the same,
Asking no more. Thus you can see it plain:
Ill guidance is the cause of the ill fame
110   The world has earned, this wicked world of pain—
Bad leadership, not nature gone to rot
In you. For Rome, which made the just world, could
Boast two bright suns once, as it now cannot.
Each clarified one path: not bad and good,
But world and God. And now what have we got?
One quells the other. Sword and shepherd’s crook
Are joined, and all for ill, since, joined, the one
Has no fear of the other. Take a look—
If you should doubt this tale of mischief done
120   By false ambition—at an ear of corn,
For plant is known by seed. There on the land
Between the Adige and Po, were born,
And grew for generations, a great band
Of all the brave and courteous, and then
The Emperor Frederick met his nemesis,
The papacy, and now only those men
Can cross it safely who would rather miss,
For shame, all converse with the virtuous,
Or even a mere meeting. Growing old
130   Down there are three men we might well discuss
As paragons the ancient times may hold
Up to the new as figures of reproof.
Currado and Gherardo were dead straight,
And Guido da Castel was not aloof
From all the horsemen who passed by his gate—
Such that the French would call him, in their style,
The guileless Lombard. So we may deduce
The Church of Rome, divided all this while
Into two powers, falls without excuse
140   Into the mire, itself and its great task
Both utterly befouled.” “You put the case
With skill, my Marco,” said I. “I need ask
No more why Levi’s sons and all that race
Who served the tabernacle were debarred
From worldly goods. But tell me who he is,
Gherardo, who yet breathes to give a hard
Lesson in virtue from an age once his
To this age of barbarity in which
We now must live.” He said: “Either your speech
150   Deceives me, or it tests me. Phrase and pitch
Are Tuscan, yet somehow I have to teach
You everything about Gherardo. Him
I know by no last name, because it’s been
Dragged in the dirt, its lustre dusted dim,
By his loose daughter Gaia. This I’ve seen,
A true sign of today. Now may the Lord
Be with you, for no further can I walk
With you. There is a risk I can’t afford,
Much as I have enjoyed our little talk.
160   You see there, where the smoke is turning white?
It will turn brighter yet, and you will see
An angel, for he is that source of light.
But I must leave you before he sees me.”
He turned back, cutting short our colloquy.
Remember, reader, if you’ve ever been
Caught in the mountain mist so nothing could
(Except as moles see, through the skin) be seen,
How, when the day showed signs of coming good,
The dense white vapours started to unclasp
And through them the sun’s feeble disc appeared?
Remember that, and your mind soon may grasp
How I, at first, and as its setting neared,
Now saw the sun again. And so I came,
10 My step matched to my Guide’s in that pale glow,
Forth from the fog to see the beams whose flame
Was close to dying on the beach below.
Imagination! With your power to steal
Our thoughts, at times, away from actual things—
So that, although a thousand trumpets peal
Around us, still we pay no heed—who stings
You into life when our dulled senses feel
Nothing to offer you? The light that moves
Your workings takes its form in Heaven, by
20 Itself or by God’s will, which, if that proves
To be the maker, sends it down the sky
To you. Of Philomela’s sister, when
Pursued for her foul deed she changed her shape
Into a nightingale, the imprint then
Entered my thoughts. My mind tried to escape—
Ah, Procne, how your crime dismayed all men!—
Into itself, so nothing from outside
Could be received. But then came raining down,
Through my high fantasy, the crucified
30 Figure of Haman; scornful his fierce frown,
Dying in anger, and around him were
Ahasuerus in his greatness, and
Esther his queen—it was because of her
That Haman’s plot against Jews in that land
Was foiled—and there her cousin Mordecai,
Of such integrity in word and deed;
And as the image on my inner eye
Paled by itself, a bubble in sore need
Of the water that it formed in, there arose
40 The vision of a girl in bitter tears,
And she said “Queen, how was it that you chose,
From anger, to cut short your natural years?
You died for me, for your Lavinia,
To keep me. But you should have loved me less,
And now I am the one who mourns, for far
More than the ruin of my Turnus. Yes,
The wreck I weep for endlessly is yours.”
As sudden new light causes sleep to break,
Which, being broken, fitfully restores
50 Itself before it fades and we’re awake,
So my imagination fell away
As soon as a bright light shone in my face,
Brighter by far than in our usual day.
I turned to get my bearings in this place
When, through the dazzle, I heard some voice say:
“Here is the place to climb.” So I was drawn
Away from all thoughts else, and my desire
To see that speaker had so white a dawn
It needs no rest, for it will never tire
60 Until we meet at last. But as the sun
Weighs down our vision with excess of fire
And veils its outline with its power to stun,
Just so my power at this point came up short.
“A spirit hidden in its sacred light,”
My Leader said, as if spurred by my thought,
“Is guiding us unsought from height to height,
As we ourselves might give ourselves support,
No questions asked: for he who waits to ask
Is of a mind to face refusal. Now
70 Let’s time our steps in answer to the task
Of going where he points, and so somehow
Ascend before it darkens. After that
We can’t go on until the sky turns fair.”
Into the stairway which we now were at
We turned our steps together, and right there,
On the first step, I thought I felt a wing
Beside me fan my face, and clearly heard
“Beati pacifici.” The key thing
It said next I remember word for word:
80 “They have no sin of anger.” Lingering,
The last light rays were shining far aloft,
So high up on the hill that the sky’s sides
Were spattered with the points, still sparse and soft,
Of the first stars. Night comes while day abides.
“My strength,” I said within myself, “Why do
You drain away?” For in my legs I felt
The force suspended. Here the stairs came to
Their end, and I could sense my impulse melt
Like a ship approaching shore, as in the new
90 Circle I listened for a while to see
If anything was happening, then said
“Kind father, what offence is it, tell me,
That is purged here? Our feet may have been led
To stillness, but let not your speech be still.”
And he: “The love of good is here restored,
That fell short of its duty. With a will
The oar is plied anew that had grown bored
And trifled with the water. To fulfil
Your hope more quickly of an easy mind,
100   Turn it to me, and you will benefit
From this delay. My son, as you will find
Deep in your knowledge and informing it,
Neither Creator, no, nor any kind
Of creature was there ever without Love,
If of the mind, or natural. It may not,
The natural, err, and ranks above
The other in that aspect. Minds have got
Two ways to err in love: the wrong object,
Or else the vigour with which love’s pursued—
110   There might be excess, there might be defect.
Directed at the primal good, imbued
With no more than a rational respect
Toward the second thing, the world, it won’t
Cause sinful pleasure; but when evil turns
Its head, or when its inner counsels don’t
Govern the rate at which its longing burns
For serving its own good—perhaps too much,
Perhaps too little—then the creature spurns
Its own creator, and the two lose touch
120   Except as adversaries. From that fact
You’ll understand that love must be the source
In you of every virtue and vile act
Deserving punishment. Since love, of course,
Can never turn against the one who feels
The love, but has his welfare most at heart,
All beings are protected by strong seals
Against self-loathing. No one is apart
From the First One, none self-sustaining. No
Creature can be cut off by hating Him.
130   Only a neighbour’s evil is loved so,
And this love, in your human life and limb,
The common clay in which you come and go,
Springs up in three ways. There is he that hopes
To rise beside his neighbour’s sharp descent
And looks with favour when the downward slopes
Demote another’s greatness, as was meant
To be, he thinks: and he thinks that from Pride.
There’s he that fears his power might be lost
And all his honour and high state denied
140   Because another has them, at his cost,
Or so he feels, although they rank the same.
Sorely aggrieved, he longs to see reversed
The other’s rise to equal power and fame,
And it’s by Envy that he has been cursed.
The third man feels disgraced by some insult
And hungers for revenge, and plots and plans,
And makes another’s harm into a cult
Which hangs around the house like pots and pans,
And this is Anger. These are the three kinds
150   Of love gone wrong they weep for back in those
Three circles you’ve just come through. In their minds
They had the vice, and they do not suppose
To be excused, although the sin remained
Just a propensity, mere sinfulness.
But now there is still more to be explained:
Those who pursue the good, but strive with less
Than their full measure to attain it. All,
Although confused, find good to apprehend
In which the mind can rest. This they may call
160   An object of desire, a fruitful end
They try to reach, but should they try and fail
Sufficiently to see, or gain, the goal,
This terrace here, and all it must entail
Of penitence, awaits each slothful soul
With torments for its fault. And then, beyond
This terrace rise a further three, to hold
Those who were far from feeble but too fond
Of all the pinchbeck that they thought was gold,
The pleasures of the world, which give no joy,
170   Which don’t ring true, but click like counterfeit—
The earthbound goods fit only to destroy
Good’s essence, and to draw love by deceit.
Love lost like that is wept for up above
In those three circles, but the three distinct
Divisions of that all too faithful love
I won’t describe now. How they’re interlinked
Will be apparent to your intellect
When you, through toil, have learned what to expect.”
When my exalted Teacher reached the end
Of his discourse, he looked me in the face
Intently, with a gaze that did not bend,
To see if I was satisfied. The place
Of my last thirst, in fact, was full again
With yet another, but I held my peace,
Saying within myself “It could be, when
I ask him all these questions without cease,
It troubles him.” And then I said aloud:
10 “Master, my vision, quickened by your light,
Sees all your words with clarity endowed.
I pray therefore, dear father, that you might
Explain love to me: love to which, you say,
Good actions are reduced, and equally
Their opposites.” And he: “Direct the way
To me, the eyesight, keen as it may be,
Of all your understanding. Plain as day
The error will strike you about the blind
Who would be guides. Created to be quick
20 In love, it’s quickly moved, the mind,
Towards all pleasures. By the merest flick
Of pleasure it is whipped to action. Your
Perception takes in from the world outside,
A sense impression, which it holds before
Your mind, and spreads about both long and wide
So that the mind turns to it. If, so turned,
The mind inclines that way, then we must call
That inclination love. It is not learned,
It’s instinct, to be reinforced by all
30 The pleasures you might have. For just as fire
Moves upward, as a form that’s born to climb
To where it most thrives, so, into desire,
The mind thus seized must enter at the time
Of being taken—for desire moves as
The spirit moves it—and may never rest
Until the thing it loves it truly has
In its possession, and so finds the crest
Of joy. Now you may see how truth’s concealed
For those who say that all love merits praise
40 Just for itself. Its matter stands revealed
As good, they think: but here their judgement plays
A trick, because the wax might well be good—
That is, the instinct—and the stamp be bad,
Which is the thing loved.” “My wits have understood
Your words. Some of the questions that I had
About love’s nature are now answered, yet
Perplexity increases, for if love
Is offered us as something we might get
From outside, and the soul’s not thinking of
50 Which foot should fall, but sets foot as it must,
There is no merit in which way it goes,
Crooked or straight.” Thus I to him. He: “Just
As far as reason sees can I disclose
The truth to you. Beyond, there you must wait
For Beatrice, who deals in faith. In men,
As in all things, there lies within, innate,
An essence, the substantial form. Again
This form—for man, it bears the name of soul—
Is both united with and yet distinct
60 From matter, which it keeps within, a whole
Specific virtue which is tightly linked
To its own action and is not perceived
Or demonstrated save by its effect,
As is the first life in a plant green-leaved.
It follows that the human intellect
Can’t have the first idea of how we know
About our first ideas and how they came
To us, or how desire finds objects so
Alluring. They’re inside you, just the same
70 As the honey-making urge is in the bees:
Nor does the primal, central will admit
Earning of praise or moral penalties.
So that your wishes may conform to it—
The balance, that is, to your natural urge—
There is, innate in you, to hold the fort,
A faculty of counsel, thus to merge
The two against a yielding. This we ought
To call the principle in which is found
The merit of your reason, by how well
80 It gathers in our loves from sky to ground
And winnows out the guilt from grain that fell
Too smoothly to the sickle. Those who went
In reason to the roots, the ancient Greeks,
Unearthed the freedom, realised what it meant,
And gave us the great texts in which it speaks:
They gave us Ethics, clear proofs that though each
And every love you burn with must arise
Out of necessity, the power to reach
And guide it is in you. This is the prize
90 Whose endless value Beatrice will teach
You of, the noble faculty, free will:
Have it in mind, because the chances are
She’ll speak of it to you, there on the hill.”
The moon was late, and we had come this far
Without it. It was almost midnight. There
It was, to make the stars look scarcer. Like
A fiery bucket it moved through the air,
Its course on those tracks that the sun will strike
When, seen from Rome, it plunges down between
100   Sardinia and Corsica. That shade
By whose great books Pietola has been
Honoured above all Mantua, had laid
His head down. I had heard him well. Yes, I,
Replete with his informed and clear discourse,
Rambled in drowsiness, but by and by
Half sleep was torn awake with sudden force.
Some people had come round behind our backs,
And as Ismenus and Asopus saw
The troops of tumult and the mock attacks
110   Along the bank at night when Thebes would roar
And prance for Bacchus, so I saw them come
Around that circle, but with something more
To celebrate, for I could tell the drum
That drove them was no pagan pulse of blood
But goodwill and just love. And soon they were
Upon us, all these runners, like a flood,
And two in front cried out in tears: “Praise her!
Praise Mary hastening to the hill!” And this:
“Caesar made speed to Spain!” And in the rear
120   The rest cried: “Go! Go! It would come amiss
To lose time for too little love! We cheer
For zeal in grand deeds that bring back to life
The green of God’s grace!” Then my Leader said
“You people in whom fervour runs so rife
To wake, maybe, what you have left half dead,
Through lack of will, delay and negligence,
This man who stands here—it’s the truth I speak—
Before the morning sunshine should commence
Again, would go up. Give us what we seek.
130   Show us the gap.” At which one of that band
Said “Follow us and you will find the break.
We need to move, you have to understand:
We may not rest. Excuse us if you take
Our penance for rebuff. I, at one time,
Was abbot of San Zeno, in the days
When Barbarossa ruled Verona. I’m
Aware Milan still loathes him, but he stays
Revered where I lived, and there is one there now,
Alberto, who has one foot in the grave
140   And must soon shed tears on account of how
His monastery is run. No throne will save
That lord of grief from using power there
In those cloisters, and because he set his son—
Warped in the body, worse in mind—to wear
The abbot’s cowl, a basely born wanton
In place of the true shepherd.” I don’t know
If he said more or else fell silent, as
Already he had run to pass us so,
But thus I heard and in my mind it has
150   Remained. And he that was my help said “Turn
Around here. See the two that bare in wrath
Their teeth while they tell lessons all should learn
About historic instances of sloth.”
They came behind the rest, and as they came
They said “The sea was opened, but they failed
To get back to the Jordan all the same.”
They must have meant the Hebrews. And “They sailed
As far as Sicily but had no thirst
For more horizons, and Aeneas left
160   Without them. Thus they lived on, and were cursed
With lack of glory, of all fame bereft.”
Then, when these shades were gone so far from us
We couldn’t see them, a new thought was born
Within me that I needed to discuss,
And then another, and my mind was torn
In all directions like a tumbling stream:
My eyes closed, and my thoughts turned to a dream.