Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 19–21 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 19–21

In that hour when the whole heat of the day
Is overcome by Earth’s cold and the cold
Of Saturn, and no longer keeps at bay
The cold moon, while what geomancers hold
To be their “Greater Future”—that small spray
Of six stars—rises in the east before
The dawn, using a path that won’t remain
Long dark for it, and light will close the door,
There came to me a woman, racked with pain,
10 Into my dream, and she was crossed of eye
And crooked on her feet, with broken hands,
And sallow, and she stammered fit to die.
I stared at her, and as the sun commands
Warmth into limbs benumbed by the chill night,
My look untied her tongue, and in a while
She straightened up. Wan features were made bright
With colour, as love finds the proper style.
Her speech set free, she then began to sing,
And hard it would have been to turn my mind
20 Away from that song, such a charming thing
It was. “I am the siren, of my kind
The sweetest, and the sailors I can fetch
In from the sea, and them to me I bind
As prisoners of delight. For quite a stretch
Ulysses, eager voyager, was held
Fast by my song. Whoever dwells with me,
So thoroughly are all his longings quelled
He rarely leaves.” The pretty melody
Was over, but her lips were not yet closed
30 When there beside me a new face appeared,
A woman holy, vibrant yet composed.
Briefly she spoke, in sharp tones to be feared
For anger. “Virgil, Virgil, who is this?”
His gaze paid homage to that honest one.
With altogether different emphasis
He seized the other, and the thing was done:
Tearing her clothes in front, he laid her bare,
Showing her belly, and the stink of her
Awoke me, and I heard my Guide declare:
40 “Three times I called you, and yet still you were
Enchanted. Rise now and get out of there.
We have to find the gap where you go in.”
I rose, and high day had already lit
The circles, from low down, where they begin,
All the way up the holy mountain. It
Was full of light. Propelled by the new sun,
We went on. As I followed him, my brow—
I knew by how it felt—I bore like one
Whose thoughts weigh down on him, to make him bow
50 Like the half-arch of a bridge, and then I heard
“Come, here’s the passage,” in a voice more sweet
And gracious to the ear than any word
In this our mortal world we ever meet.
The speaker had the spread wings of a swan.
He showed us upwards in between the walls
Of flint-stone, and we felt, as we moved on,
The fanning of his feathers, with soft calls
Of qui lugent, which means all those who mourn
Are to be blessed, for consolation will
60 Possess their souls. “By what doubt are you torn?”
My Guide asked when our new place on the hill
Was higher than the angel’s. “Why do you
Stare at the ground?” And I to him: “I go
Compelled by much misgiving from a new
Vision, which to itself has bent me so
I can’t stop thinking of it.” “But it’s true,”
He said, “that ancient witch is mourned nowhere
Except in circles yet to come. You saw
How men are free of her. Enough said. Spare
70 Your feet your waverings, and fix before
Your eyes the real enchantment, the spun flare
The Eternal King, to mark the joy in store,
Has lit with the great wheels, their starry trace.”
Just like the falcon, which, when it is hailed,
Looks first down to its feet, then turns to face
The call, and stretches, by desire assailed
For food, so I was, in that cloven place,
And went up through the rock to where one takes
The circuit. I came out in the fifth round.
80 People were there who wept as the heart breaks:
They helplessly lay face down on the ground.
“My soul cleaves to the dust,” they said with sighs
So deep the words were hard to pick apart.
“Elect of God,” my Poet asked, “whose prize
Is here to have the anguish in your heart
Made less acute by justice and by hope,
Which is the best way up?” “If you’re exempt
From lying here on this round of the slope,”
The answer came, “the route for your attempt”—
90 These words came from a little way ahead—
“Is quickest if your right hand stays outside.”
After I found that face by what it said,
I turned with a mute question to my Guide,
And gladly he assented with a sign.
Free now to act, I drew above that soul
Whose words had made me note him. These were mine.
“Spirit whose weeping ripens to a whole
Without which nobody returns to God,
For my sake stay awhile your chief concern.
100   Who were you all? Why do you, in this odd
Manner, show us your backs? This I would learn,
And whether you, when I go back alive
Into the world, would want from me a boon.”
And he to me: “Just how it should arrive
That Heaven turns our backs to it, you soon
Will know. Know now that Peter was
First in my chair. I was Pope Adrian,
Count of Lavagna, titled so because
That fair stream serves our land. I was the man
110   Who proved in five weeks what the mantle weighs
On him who keeps it from the mud. No load
Comes close to it. Alas, there were delays
Before my feet were set on the right road,
But when I was made Shepherd there in Rome
I saw how life was just a pack of lies,
I saw the heart could never be at home,
I saw it was impossible to rise
In that life, so that this life, with no end,
Kindled my love. I, wretched till that hour,
120   Separate from God, believed that my best friend
Was avarice. You see me in the power
Of its fit penitence. What avarice
Can do is here declared, so as to purge
Converted souls. No pain is worse than this
In all the mountain. Just as that foul urge
Kept our eyes low, misled by worldly things,
So justice here has sunk them to the earth.
Just as that rage reduced to flickerings
Our love of good, and labour died at birth,
130   So justice here takes care to hold us fast,
Bound hand and foot, and keeps us for as long
As it should please the Lord. From first to last
We lie still and outstretched. We were that wrong.”
I’d knelt, and was about to speak, but when
He heard one word, he guessed my reverence.
“What cause,” he said, “has set you kneeling, then?”
And I: “Your dignity commands my sense
Of fitness.” He to me: “Brother, set straight
Your legs, and rise. I am, make no mistake,
140   A fellow servant of one Potentate,
Along with you and others. For the sake
Of those words in the Gospel which make clear
All earthly marriages are here annulled,
Be sure of what I mean. I have not, here,
My earthly rank, so try not to be gulled.
Now go your way. I would not have you pause
Longer than this. Your presence interferes
With how I weep according to the laws
Of that full ripening you say my tears
150   Will bring me to. Alagia, my niece,
Lives yonder. By her nature she has all
The virtues. May our house leave them in peace,
And not corrupt her with its tempting call,
For she is all my treasure left unspent
As I lie here in this, my long lament.”
Against a better will, mere will fights ill:
Therefore, to please him—this did not please me—
I drew the sponge that I had wished to fill
Out of the water, curiosity
Unsatisfied. I moved on round the hill—
My Leader, too, moved—keeping to that part
Left free from bodies close beside the rock,
As battlements provide, by builder’s art,
A walkway for the guards. Too great a stock,
10 The other edge contained, of people who
Poured from their eyes the evil, drop by drop,
That fills the world. Old wolf, a curse on you!
You with your hunger that will never stop
For more prey than all other beasts! When, when,
O heavens—by whose wheeling, it’s believed,
Conditions shift and change for living men—
When will he come by whom we are reprieved,
And put the wolf to flight? And on we went
With short, slow steps, and on those weeping shades,
20 Their lamentations, I remained intent,
Until by chance I heard, through his cascades
Of tears, one up ahead of us call “Ah,
Sweet Mary!” like a woman giving birth.
“That meagre hostelry below the star
Where you lay down your burden of great worth
Tells us how poor you were!” And then I heard:
“Fabricius, Consul who did not betray
Rome for a bribe, but chose to keep your word,
Virtue in poverty must far outweigh
30 Riches in wickedness!” These last words stirred
Such pleasure in me that I pressed ahead,
To know that soul from which they seemed to come,
And he went on to tell of how it’s said
St. Nicholas bestowed a generous sum
As dowry on three girls who faced disgrace
From destitution. “Soul who speaks so well
Of such good, who were you? Why, in this place,
Do you alone renew the tales you tell
Of well-earned praise? Be sure your words will be
40 Repaid if I get back to life, and walk
The last part of the road that’s left to me.”
And he: “Not for that boon of which you talk,
Comfort from yonder, but because I see
Such grace in you before death, I will speak.
Of that most evil tree I was the root,
The tree that overshadows with its bleak
Wide canopy all Christendom. Good fruit
Is rarely gathered there. But if Douai,
Lille, Ghent and Bruges had sufficient force
50 They’d take revenge for that fact, which is why,
From Him who judges all things in due course,
I beg an intervention. I was called
Hugh Capet, yonder. All the Kings of France
Called Philip or else Louis now installed
On that throne have my loins for provenance.
I was a Paris butcher’s son. The old
Kings faded, all but one of them, who was,
At my insistence, chosen to uphold
A cloistered life, and that became his cause:
60 A grey-clad monk. At which I could enfold
The reins, in my safe hands, of government
And kingdom, much new power and many friends:
Such an abundance that my son’s head rose
Into the vacant crown. From there extends
The line of their bones, and we all know those
Are consecrated. Just as long as that
Great dowry of Provence had not deprived
My line of shame, it more or less stood pat:
Of small account, at least it still contrived
70 To do no harm. But then with force and fraud
Began its rapine. Three French petty states
England gave up, persuaded by the sword.
Charles of Anjou, so history relates,
Was gentle when he killed young Conradin,
And sent Thomas Aquinas to his rest
With thoughtful tact. I see the times begin
When Charles of Valois, at the Pope’s behest,
Comes out of France to Florence. He wants fame
For self and people. He arrives unarmed
80 Save for the Judas lance, the shaft of blame,
And drives it home so that the city’s harmed,
Its paunch bursts, and he picks up from the game
Not land, but sin and shame. And every White
Is driven out when he lets in the Blacks:
The more he calls that victory his by right,
The more the guilt he has, the grace he lacks.
The second Charles of Anjou, from his ship
Was taken prisoner. Now I see him trade
His daughter, as the pirates crack a whip
90 For other women slaves, who must parade,
And when the bidding flags they force the price.
O Avarice, what can you do to us
To match what you have done? How can you twice
Draw to yourself my grasping bloodline thus,
So we devour each other? But there’s worse,
Worse than before, or after. Philip brings
The fleur-de-lis to settle like a curse
On where Charles Valois gets away from things,
And makes him captive—thus, a second time,
100   Mocking the Lord. Once more the vinegar!
Again the gall! And dying for no crime
Between two living thieves! And this, by far,
Is not enough for our new Pilate, no.
Outside the law he sails in all his greed
To rob the Templars. Lord, when can I show
The joy of seeing you bring what we need,
Your vengeance, which, while it stays hidden so,
Makes your wrath sweet? We know that we await
A reckoning for sinners. When I cried
110   The bride’s name of the Holy Ghost so great,
And brought you, for more comment, to my side,
Such was, for us, as long as day lasts here,
The object of our prayer exemplified,
But we invoke the worst when night draws near.
In darkness we call up Pygmalion:
Gold-fever made a traitor and a thief
And worse. By his untamed hand, death was done
To his own sister Dido’s husband. Grief
For her, but gain for him. Did anyone
120   Know misery like the greedy-guts in chief,
King Midas, who was granted his fond prayer
To have the world turn golden at his touch,
And now forever all men fight for air
Laughing at him? And all here, just as much,
Remember foolish Achan, how he stole
The spoils at Jericho and earned a hail
Of stones from Joshua, and now the whole
Anguish he feels again. And we assail
Sapphira and her husband with our scorn,
130   They who took money that the people willed
To the apostles. And the horse-kick borne
By Heliodorus after he had filled
His pockets from the temple, we salute.
The name of Polymestor, King of Thrace—
Who murdered Polydorus and, to boot,
Filched all his wealth—we grant a lasting place
In infamy. And the last one on the list?
‘Crassus, you drank gold. Did you like the taste?’
For that Triumvir had a grasping fist
140   And died of it, and in his mouth the waste
Of his great love was poured, but he had missed
The moment when he might have lived the proof
That avarice is loss. Some of us speak
Forth boldly here, and others, more aloof,
Speak low. The ardour, strong or weak,
Compels our voice with force the more or less,
And thus, although I seemed alone just now,
We all talk day by day of what we bless,
The good. But I was loudest. That was how
150   You picked me out.” We had already left
Hugh Capet, and were out to cover ground
As fast as we could go, when the whole heft
Of that great mountain shook and moved around
Like something getting set to fall. A chill
Seized me as if I’d been sent to my death.
Did Delos, the floating island—by Jove’s will
Set fast so that Latona might give breath
To Heaven’s twin eyes—ever shake this hard
Before Apollo and Diana stood
160   On earth made firm? My Master was my guard:
He drew close, to convince me this was good,
As on all sides arose a mighty shout:
“Fear not, I am your guide!” was one thing heard,
Also a cry of Gloria rang out,
And in excelsis Deo chased that word
Into the ear, although those close about
I heard the best, and was not always sure,
Such was the noise. Unmoving, in suspense,
We stood surrounded by that sweet uproar,
170   As once the shepherds were deprived of sense
By what the cry they heard said was in store
For them, and all mankind: something immense.
But then it ended, and the trembling ceased,
And we could take once more our sacred path,
The shades that lay there, having thus released
Their outburst, melted in the aftermath,
Their usual weeping. Never did ignorance
Goad me to know—if rightly I recall—
As it did then, in that twin circumstance
180   Of song and earthquake. But since that was all
There was to see and hear, and time was short,
I dared not ask, and could not, on my own,
Work out the implications. Lost in thought,
Too shy to ask a question, left alone
Behind my Guide, I went on past that long
Line of the ones who weep at their own song.
The natural thirst that’s never quenched if not
By the same sweet water that Samaria’s
Most humble woman begged might be her lot
Tormented me, and haste urged me, and as
I hurried on that crowded way behind
My Leader, a compassion for the just
Vengeance that made them weep welled in my mind,
And lo, as Luke recalls in words we trust
As from a witness, when Christ reappeared
10 Out of the tomb’s mouth and was seen by two
There in his way, just so, to us, there neared
A shade behind our backs while all we knew
Was that which lay before us, and we saw
Nothing of him until he spoke. “God yield
You peace, my brothers.” Virgil’s gesture bore
Acknowledgement for what had been appealed,
But then he spoke. “Alas, God never will
For me. But may the faithful court on high
That keeps me exiled hopelessly until
20 The end of time, bring you in peace where I
Can never go, the assembly of the blessed.”
“And how,” the shade asked, as we speedily
Went on, “if you’re unworthy of this test,
Have you been brought so far on stairs that He
Built for one purpose?” And my Teacher said
“Look on the marks borne by this man, and see
An angel traced them so he might be sped
To where the righteous reign. But since the fate
Lachesis, spinning that thread day and night
30 Which is our life, has not yet the full rate
Of flax from Clotho, who selects the right
Amount for all alive, and loads and packs
The distaff, so his soul—your sister, and
Mine too—could not alone make tracks
This high, because by nature it is banned
From seeing in our way, through intellect:
And thus was I drawn from Hell’s yawning jaws
To guide him, and will guide him, I expect,
As far as reason reaches with its laws.
40 But can you tell us why the mountain shook
So violently just then, and why we seemed
To hear one giant shout, which surely took
All of the souls sent here to be redeemed
Down to its wave-washed base?” Thus questioning,
He put the thread’s end through the needle’s eye
Of my desire so neatly that the thing
I wished to know made me less thirsty by
The measure that my hope was raised. Whereat
The other said “The mountain’s holy laws
50 Do not brook the disorderly, or that
Which injures custom. This place, for that cause,
Is free from change. Only when Heaven calls
Itself unto itself, are changes made,
But only then, and therefore no rain falls
Or hail or snow or dew, and there is laid
No carpet of hoar frost, not anywhere
Beyond the three-step staircase you have seen.
There are no clouds here, whether dense or rare,
Nor lightning flash, nor has there ever been
60 Iris the rainbow, who, down there below,
Will bridge the sky to echo the sunshine.
Nor does the wind’s friend, the dry vapour, go
Higher than that third step which draws the line
Where Peter’s vicar sets his feet. Although
The mountain, lower down, might sometimes shake
A little or a lot, it will not be,
Up here where we are, subject to a quake
From wind the earth hides. If, to me,
The reason is a mystery, still I’m sure
70 It trembles when one soul feels purified
So it may finally arise and soar
On its ascending path, the upward glide,
And then we hear the shout you heard before.
Pureness of soul is by the will alone
Proved true, and then the soul, set free at last
To change its place, by no will of its own
Is taken by surprise. The will holds fast
The soul, and for the soul it will prevail.
Until that time, the soul might will indeed,
80 But set beside desire its will is frail:
Desire for sin, and then the equal need
For penitence, that mirror-image urge
Inspired by Holy Justice. I have lain
Five hundred years and more in pain to purge
My sin, and only now feel my will gain
Its freedom for the flight to re-emerge
On a better threshold. That was why you felt
The earth quake, and you heard the spirits shout
Their praises to the Lord. May they be dealt
90 The same great benefit, all the devout
Throughout the mountain, and soon make the climb.”
He spoke thus. Since the draught is more enjoyed
The more the thirst, I lack the words and rhyme
To say how much I gained from that filled void.
Then my wise Leader said “Now is the time
When I see how you’re tangled in the net
And how you are let loose. I see why, here,
It trembles, and why you rejoice. Now set
My mind at rest and let the truth appear,
100   And tell me who you were. Then you can let
Me gather from your words why you have spent
So many centuries here, lying down.”
“When goodly Titus,” that soul said, “was lent
Help from the holder of the Highest Crown
To raze Jerusalem, a gesture meant
As vengeance for the blood the gashes spilled
To pay off Judas, then I bore the name
That lasts best, and is most with honour filled,
The name of poet. Yes, I had that fame
110   But not the faith. Still, it was sweet, my song:
I, from Toulouse, was drawn to Rome. My brows
Were decked with myrtle. Still, after so long,
Men yonder speak my name, which yet endows
My themes with dignity. It’s Statius.
I sang of Thebes at first, Achilles next.
That second subject I could not discuss
Fully, for lack of time. In each context
The spark that lit my fire came from the blaze
That lit a thousand fires—I mean, of course,
120   The Aeneid. In my poetry, it plays
The roles of nurse and mother, spring and source:
Without it I’d have weighed a drachma. Less.
To have lived when Virgil lived! Here in this place
I would have spent a year more in duress
Before my banishment gave way to grace,
Just for the chance of treading the same ground.”
At these words Virgil fixed me with a look
That said, in silence, “Silence.” But he found
The will cannot do all things by the book,
130   For tears and laughter are close followers
Of passions, since they tend to spring from them,
And with a truthful passion it occurs
Most often that we’re likely to condemn
Their insolence. But still, I only smiled
Like someone hinting. The shade held his peace
And searched into my eyes as if beguiled
By something puzzling that might find release
Just where expression most resides. “Your glance
Showed mirth just then. That it may end in good,
140   Your labour, please explain that merry dance.”
Now I am held two ways. There’s one that would
Have me keep silent, and the other seeks
The opposite. My sigh is understood
By my Guide. “Fear not. Now be one who speaks,
And tell him what he so much craves to learn.”
And I: “You wonder, old soul, at my smile,
But I would have a greater wonder burn
Its way into your mind. For all this while,
Plainly before you as he guides my eyes
150   On high, it has been Virgil standing here—
Virgil from whom you took the gift as prize
To sing of men and make the gods appear,
And if another cause you did surmise
For my smile, know it has to be untrue:
Put it aside. The reason was your voice,
The praise it spoke of him. I smiled for you,
Because my secret pleasure left no choice.”
He bent down to embrace my Teacher’s feet,
But Virgil said “Brother, it’s just no use.
160   You are a shade and it’s a shade you meet.”
And Statius, rising, said “My one excuse
Is my great love for you, its burning heat.
I clean forgot, because I felt so much,
That shades are here to see, but not to touch.”