Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 25–27 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 25–27

The sun was in the Ram, and had declined
Two hours from noon, which left the Bull on high
In the meridian. By that same kind
Of movement, night had quit the tallest sky
Above Jerusalem, so you would find
The Scorpion up there if you could look,
And we were short of time for our ascent.
Pressed in advance for all the time it took,
We were as one that no impediment
10 Can stop, because necessity, his goad,
Pricks him continually, and our small crew
Met one by one the next stage on our road
By entering a gap so tight that you
Were forced to climb alone on its stone stairs.
And as the little stork might lift one wing
To quit the nest and thereby prove it dares
To fly but then pretends that no such thing
Had crossed its mind and drops the wing again,
Just so was I with my desire to ask
20 A question, and I almost spoke, but then
I didn’t. My Guide, equal to the task,
For all our speed of foot, did not refrain.
“Your bow of speech,” he said, “is tightly drawn
Right to the arrowhead and creaks with strain.
Please let it loose.” With confidence reborn,
This time I got the words out. “How do they
Get thin when there’s no need of nourishment?”
And he: “If only you recall the way
Meleager’s life was lived and wholly spent
30 In one brand’s burning, this point won’t be hard
For you, and if you also think of how
Your image in the glass meets your regard
With every move you make—not soon, but now,
Exactly similar—yet isn’t real,
You’ll find it easier to realise
That souls can well reflect what bodies feel
And make it seem substantial to your eyes.
But just to set your puzzlement at rest
I call on Statius, and bid him heal
40 Your wounds.” “If in your presence I attend,”
Said Statius, “to spirits seen as real—
Although the actual body is long gone—
In the eternal life, it is because
I can’t refuse you.” That said, he went on:
“My son, if, in your mind, you open doors
To take my words in, I can demonstrate
How this can be. The thirsty veins do not
Drink perfect blood, which, sharing the pure state
Of food kept from the table, takes in what
50 The heart confers, the power to generate
The future body’s parts. Like blood that takes
The standard course through veins to fashion these,
The perfect heart’s blood subsequently makes
Its way down to where words are bound to please
Less than a decent silence, and from there
It joins another’s blood in the right place,
The natural vessel. In this way the pair
Of matched streams mingle as they share the space:
One passive, and the other, since it flows
60 From sheer perfection, active. The twinned stream
Begins to function as its thickness grows,
Coagulating, quickening its seam
Of virtue into potent readiness—
A soul, much as a plant’s, but not the same,
Because the plant’s soul sets out never less
Than all set to arrive, whereas the frame
Of this soul is sea fungus at the most.
It moves, it feels, it goes on to produce
Organs for faculties. It is the host
70 Of every little thing and each thing’s use
That grows out of its seed. And now, my son,
The force unfolds and spreads out of the heart
Of the begetter, until all is one,
And nature has made shift for every part
And member. But you can’t see how it’s done
As yet—quite how from the dumb animal
A creature comes that speaks—and neither could
A wiser one than you. He saw it all,
Except one special part that would come good
80 And be the mind. No, Aristotle thought
The intellect was separate from the soul
And common to all men, and so he taught.
But open up your breast now to the whole
Truth of this tricky matter. It’s like so:
No sooner does the structure of the brain
Get organised within the embryo
Than in comes the First Mover might and main,
Happy at nature’s work of art, and gives
A potent inspiration to it, which
90 Incorporates all that already lives
In there, and so a single soul made rich
By these two elements begins to thrive,
And feel, and think. And lest these words of mine
Astonish you, of how men come alive,
Consider how the sun’s heat turns to wine
When it combines with the substantial juice
That pours from the pulped grapes plucked from the vine.
Or think how, from the flesh, the soul pulls loose
When Lachesis runs out of flax. It takes
100   Along with it all the potentials for
The faculties: that is, whatever makes
The human or divine. The first no more
Are heard, the second (memory and thought
And will, the things that nothing can confer
Save the divine), freed from their last resort
In flesh, are more acute than they once were.
And so the soul falls, marvellously, towards
One of two shores (and all this will occur
Without a pause): the Tiber’s, where it boards
110   The boat sent for the saved, or else the dark
Bank of the Acheron. And then it first
Becomes aware of how it will embark
And where it’s bound. As soon as it’s immersed
In space, its formative essential force
Sends out its rays, in just those shapes they took
For living members, taking the same course
That sunbeams take in rain-soaked air: we look
And see the colours. Thus the air around
Will set itself into the self-same form
120   The soul had when alive. There will be found
A stamp of the soul’s power. Though not as warm,
The shape will, as the flame follows the fire,
Follow the spirit. Since it has by this
Its image from then on, so we require,
To fit it, the name “shade,” for emphasis
On insubstantial visibility,
And from this air, organs for every sense
Are formed, even for sight. As we can see,
We speak, and smile, and weep, and heave intense
130   Sighs of the depth that might have met your ears
Here on this hill. As our desires impinge
On us, the shade takes form, and so appears—
At which you marvel.” We were at the hinge
Of the last torment, taking a right turn,
And faced another care. Out from the bank
Flames shoot. To bend them, as they burn,
The path sends up a blast from its far flank
So that the fire is kept back. Thus we had,
One at a time, to take the open side.
140   For me this had two ways of being bad,
Since on the one hand there was this hot tide
Of fire to face, and on the other I
Feared falling. “Along here we must draw tight
On our eyes’ reins, lest our steps go awry.”
But then I heard, in that great burning light,
A song: Summae Deus Clementiae
The hymn that tells us chastity is right—
Which made me keen to turn. Within
The flames were spirits walking, so I kept
150   Looking at them, my stunned glance hard to win
Away from them and back to where I stepped,
My gaze divided. Their hymn fully sung,
They cried what Mary said to Gabriel,
Thus: “Virum non cognosco” (in our tongue,
“No man was with me”), for the world knows well
That she was chaste. And then they all began
To sing the hymn again, and at the end,
This time, they cried “Diana hid from man
Deep in the woods, and would not keep for friend
160   The nymph Callisto, who with Jove had lain,
But banished her because she dared to drink
The poison Venus pours, the wine of pain.”
And then they sang again—and will, I think,
First sing, then cry, then sing for all the time
They burn—of all the husbands and the wives
Who keep their marriage free of that sad crime
By being chaste, as wedlock wants our lives
To be. And with such precepts and such prayer
The last wound of them all we may repair.
While one before the other thus we went
Along the edge, my Master often said
“Watch out, for what I warn is truly meant.”
The sun now struck me, not from overhead,
But more on my right shoulder, for its beams
Changed all the west from azure into white,
But as pale fire, when cloaked with shadow, seems
More glowing, so my shadow made the light
More visible—for many shades a sign
10 To heed, and their first cause to speak of me,
Deducing that my flesh might still be mine.
“His body,” said one, “does not seem to be
Unreal.” And some approached me, just as near
As they could come without their breaking through
To where they would not burn: their only fear.
One spoke: “Pray answer, going as you do
Behind the others, not for tardiness
Perhaps, but more for reverence: say what’s true.
Not only I, who burn with thirst, no less
20 From fire, long for an answer, but all these
Long for it as an Ethiopian
Dreams of cold water. Therefore tell me, please,
How comes it you’re a wall that stops the sun
As if so far you have escaped death’s net?”
So spoke one, and I would have said my name
Right then, had my attention not been set
On something else strange. Through the hall of flame,
And facing opposite to those we’d met,
Came people whose appearance held my gaze
30 Suspended. Then the shades on either side
Make haste to kiss each other, a mere graze,
Because they neither break nor slow their stride.
Just as the ants in their dark troop will touch
Muzzle to muzzle—as they ask the way,
Perhaps, or how the day goes—it was such
With these, who, ending their brief interplay,
Before they took their next step to move on,
Each tries his hardest to outshout the rest.
The ones who just arrived, to get them gone,
40 Cry “Sodom and Gomorrah!” and attest
To lusts in spite of nature, while the first
Group we encountered cries out “Pasiphae
Enters the cow to slake her raging thirst
With what the bull brings!” and so testify
To natural lusts ungoverned. Then, like cranes
That fly, some to the mountains in the north
And some south to the sand—for none remains
Of these when the frost comes, and those go forth
When too much sun shines—so the two crowds go
50 Their separate ways, and all return with tears
To their first chanting, and the cry they know
Befits their weakness. By their looks all ears,
Those came close who’d entreated me before.
Twice having seen their need, I said: “Souls who
Are bound to have, at the right time, your store
Of peace, my limbs are not left, either new
Or old, back there. They’re here, both blood and joint.
It is to be no longer blind I climb.
A lady waits above fit to appoint
60 The grace for me by which I conquer time,
Bringing my mortal body through your world.
But so your greatest wish may soon be met
Where heaven’s love most widely is unfurled
In highest light, say now—so I may yet
Put pen to parchment—who you are and what
That crowd is that goes back behind you there.”
The mountain man’s no more stunned by his lot
When, rough and rustic, with a speechless stare,
He comes into the city, than each shade
70 Was now, but when they were relieved of that
Amazement—which will always quickly fade
In lofty hearts—the one who, puzzled at
My shadow, first had spoken, spoke again:
“How you are blessed, you that, to better die,
Take on experience from us! Those men
Who go the other way from us and cry
So differently, were guilty of that lust
For which, in triumph, Caesar heard the call
‘Regina!’ from the crowd, and so they must
80 Go crying ‘Sodom!’ as you heard, for all
With self-reproach and shame thus reinforce
Their burning. Our sin, on the other hand,
Was double-sexed, but ran outside the course
Of human law, our hunger in command
As with the beasts. So, parting, we cry now
Her name, who made—we add, to our disgrace—
Herself a beast, inside the timber cow:
A beast within a beast. We’re in this place
For deeds you now know, and our guilt as well.
90 If you would know our names, time would be short
To tell you, if I could. But I can tell
You this much: I can satisfy your thought
About who I might be, and who I was.
I’m Guido Guinizelli, and I make
Already my purgation here because
I sorrowed properly for my soul’s sake
Before the end.” As when Lycurgus grieved
For his child, and brought to the point of death
The woman whose neglect left him bereaved,
100   But her two sons staved off her dying breath
By rushing to embrace her, so, with some
Restraint, did I become, to hear him speak
His name, father of me and all that come
Along with me (and some make me look weak):
All those who speak the sweet and graceful rhymes
Of love, and deaf and dumb I went along
A long way, thoughtful, gazing many times
At him, the founder of our school of song,
But kept from coming near him by the fire.
110   My sight of him once fed, I offered him
My services for all he might require,
Assuring him that this was no mere whim.
And he to me: “You leave a trace so clear
In me, that Lethe can’t destroy or dim
What you have told me. If you hold me dear,
However—if your words are true—you should
Also inform me why your look and speech
Show that. Make your affection understood.”
And I to him: “Sir, your sweet lines that reach
120   From your time into ours and which will last
As long as people talk, have made their ink
Eternal treasure.” “Brother, only cast
Your glance at him ahead, and you might think
Again,” he said, while pointing. “He surpassed
Me as a master of the mother tongue.
He was the better craftsman in all forms
Of love verse and romantic tales. Among
Their writers he stood out. As for the swarms
Of idiots who hail the boring stuff
130   Of Giraut from Limoges, they think to heed
A widespread reputation is enough
To judge the truth, as if we might not need
To hear from art or reason. The same thing
Once happened with Guittone. One cracked voice
Croaked to the next that only he could sing.
But finally most made the proper choice,
The Sweet New Style. Now, if you have been graced
With so much favour that you have the right
To see the cloister where Christ is emplaced
140   As abbot of the brotherhood, you might
Say, just for me, a Paternoster, trimmed
Of its last words, for here the power to sin
Is gone from us, and so the need is dimmed
For that whole prayer.” That others might move in,
Perhaps, and take his place, he disappeared
Into the fire as when a fish goes down
To the bottom through the water. Then I neared
The one who, for the sake of his renown,
Had earlier been pointed out. His name,
150   I told him, had a place of welcome set
In my enquiring soul, and so it came
To be that he spoke thus: “We are well met.
Your courtly question pleases me so much
I neither may nor could hold back the news
Of who I am from one with such a touch
For gentle manners. How can I refuse?”

Matching his mind to his expressive style,
In Provencal his eloquence was cast.
“I am Arnaut, who weeps and sings the while
160   He walks. I see my follies of the past
With grief, and yet I still see with a smile
The day I hope I will attain at last.
And now I beg of you, by that great good
Which guides you to the summit of the stairs,
That you will think of, and have understood
In time, my sins and penitential cares.”

The furnace that refines them shone so bright,
When he stepped back he vanished in the light.
As when it shoots its first rays where the One
Who made it shed His blood, and when, in Spain,
The Scales are overhead with night half done,
And noon burns on the Ganges’ gathered rain,
So here, nigh on to sinking, stood the sun.
The day, therefore, was all set to depart,
When God’s glad angel showed himself outside
The flames, and “Blessèd are the pure in heart,”
He sang, his voice far clearer than my Guide
10 Or I could boast. “There is no way ahead
Unless you brave the fire and feel its sting.
So enter, holy souls, and then be led
With open ears by what the voices sing,”
He said when we were near, while I became,
To hear him, like one laid low in his grave.
I stretched up my clasped hands, gazed at the flame,
Imagining how once, in a deep cave,
I had seen bodies burning. Then, to me,
My escorts turned, and Virgil said: “My son,
20 There may be torment here: death, there can’t be.
Recall, recall! Even on Geryon
I kept you safe. So what shall I do here,
Nearer to God? You may well rest assured,
If you stayed in these flames year after year—
A thousand years—their fire could not afford
One singed hair to your head, so never fear:
And if, perhaps, you think that I deceive,
Go close, try with your hands and with the edge
Of what you wear, and then you will believe.
30 You’ll put off every qualm and you will pledge
Your trust.” Yet I continued to stand still,
Still hesitant, though I had no defence
Against my conscience. When he saw my will
To stay was so unbending and intense,
A little troubled he said “Now, son, look.
Dividing you from Beatrice is this wall.”
And as we read in the time-honoured book
Of Pyramus and Thisbe, before all
The mulberry turned red he raised his eyes,
40 While dying, towards her, just so my streak
Of stubbornness dissolved, and to my wise
Leader I turned, for I had heard him speak
The name forever vivid in my mind,
At which he frowned, and said “Are we to stay
Always on this side?” But his smile was kind,
As if aimed at a child that we can sway
With just an apple. Then, with me behind,
He put himself into the wall of flame,
First having asked of Statius, who had
50 Been so long in between us as we came,
To follow on. And how I’d have been glad
To jump into a vat of boiling glass
Just to get cool, so did it burn beyond
All measure there where this had come to pass.
And my sweet father, in his voice so fond
To comfort me in my fear, said “I swear
I see her eyes already.” Then a voice
To guide us sang before us, and on where
It seemed to come from we had little choice
60 Save fixing all our heed, and where the stair
Began, we came forth. There, within a light,
“Come forward all you that my father blessed,”
The voice sang, so that, startled by its might,
I couldn’t look. And then it sang the rest:
“The sun gives way,” it sang, “and soon the night
Will come. Don’t stop. Before the west grows dark,
Step out.” The way went straight up through the rock
At such a pitch I cut off the last spark
Of sunlight. The sun low, I was a block
70 To its weak rays, and we had barely gone
A few steps, when I and my sages saw,
By how my shadow failed to linger on,
The sun had set behind us, and before
The vast horizon had as yet assumed
One colour, and night ruled in all domains,
Each chose a step for bed. The mountain loomed,
And though we much desired to take the pains
Of climbing further, it denied our wish,
To do so, for its laws do not allow
80 Travel in darkness. Goats that were kittenish
And frisky on the heights are languid now,
Chewing the cud and silent in the shade,
Watched by the shepherd who leans on his staff
Yet, leaning, tends them lest a beast invade
His quiet flock and scatter them like chaff.
Just so were we three—though the goat was I
And they the shepherds—shut in on each side
By that high rock, and not much of the sky
Could I see, but in that gap gleamed a pride
90 Of stars, and they were bigger than I’d seen
Before, and brighter. There I lay to ruminate
And stargaze. Sleep, which frequently has been
First to announce what would eventuate
In my life, seized me. In the hour, I guess,
Before dawn, when sweet Venus in the east
First lights the mountain with her endlessness
Of loving fire insensibly increased,
I seemed to see, and see as if I dreamed,
A beautiful young lady gathering
100   Flowers in a meadow. As she went, she seemed,
While stooping for the pretty blooms, to sing:
“Whoever wants to ask my name should know
It’s Leah, and I pluck, with hands so fair,
The makings of a garland as I go.
I like the look, but love the open air.
My sister Rachel, on the other hand,
Sits always at her glass, as keen to see
Her own bright eyes as I am for the land
Beneath my feet. But there you are, that’s me:
110   I like to do, she likes to understand.”
And now the radiant splendours before dawn—
Always more welcome to the pilgrim when
He lodges closer to where he was born—
Chased off the shadows on all sides, and then
My sleep as well, and so I rose, to find
My mentors up already. “That sweet fruit
Of Eden which you mortals have in mind
At all times, with your hunger so acute
You seek it out on every bough, today
120   Will give peace to your craving.” Never was
There such a boon as I heard my Guide say.
Desire upon desire, without a pause,
Came over me to be above. I felt,
With every step, my feathers grow. Steps sped
Beneath us so the stairway seemed to melt,
And on the top step Virgil turned and said:
“You’ve seen the temporary fires up here,
And seen the fires of Hell that burn always,
And now, my son, the place is very near
130   Where I myself see nothing. Through the maze
I’ve brought you here with all my mind and art,
By which your nature has been purified.
It’s ready now to play the major part.
From here on, you yourself must be your guide.
Steep ways and tight opposed you. You came through.
The sun shines on your brow. Now see the grass.
The trees and flowers here that spring anew
From this fresh ground are all yours as you pass.
Until those fair eyes come to welcome you
140   Which will rejoice as once they came to weep
To me for your plight, you may sit among
These glories or go walking. But don’t keep
A vigil any longer for my tongue:
No word or any sign can you expect
From me. My work is done. Your will is whole
And free and upright, sure of its effect,
So don’t deny its bidding. Of your soul
I make you captain. Most blessed among men,
Move on. You’ll never hear from me again.”