Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 28–30 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 28–30

Eager to search the dense, divine and green
Forest, to know it, both inside and out,
This place through which the new day could be seen
With splendour tempered, while from all about
Fragrance converged on me, I left the bank
Without the guidance of a word or sign
From Virgil, and with my own will to thank
I made my slow way in a level line
Across the ground. A sweet unchanging air
10 Fondled my brow, the soft force of a breeze
Bending the trembling boughs to that point where
The mountain’s shadow first falls. At their ease
The boughs were swayed, and still remained upright
Enough for all the little birds to sing
Out of the tree-tops where they spent the night
And now turned their fine arts to welcoming
The morning hours, ecstatic in the leaves
Which gave an undertone to their sweet rhymes
As, near Ravenna, the Sirocco cleaves
20 The air—one of the winds, in ancient times,
Locked up by Aeolus—and the pine wood
Murmurs from branch to branch. Slow steps by then
Had brought me, from the place where I first stood
To enter, so far through the trees that when
I looked back I could not see whence I came,
But now my further progress was cut short
By a small stream whose tiny waves made game
To bend the grass that hedged its lively sport
Leftward. And all the waters that win fame
30 Here in the world for purity, would seem
Defiled compared to this. Though it flows dark
In the perpetual shade where not a gleam
Of moon or blaze of sun may light a spark
Below the surface, yet it can conceal
Nothing. My feet stopped there, while my sight passed
Over the stream, drawn forth by the appeal
Of freshly flowering branches in their vast
Variety. I saw that scene reveal—
As suddenly as when a thing for awe
40 Drives out our thoughts—a lady all alone
Who sang and picked the flowers that lay before
As she went on her way, her lilting tone
Matching the lightness of the petals. “Pray,
Fair lady, by love’s fondling beams made warm,
If I am to believe what your looks say
Must be your heart’s exalted inward form,
Come nearer to the stream, so that I may
Hear what you sing. For you make me recall
Proserpine, when she plucked flowers too,
50 And Pluto took her, scattering them all.
Her mother lost her and she lost the new
Glory that comes each year.” With the slight fall
Of quick foot when the dancing woman turns
With feet together, neither one advanced
By more than just a touch—and one who learns
To do this tells you she has always danced
By her ease only—this one turned to me
On the red and yellow flowers like a veiled
Virgin with modest glance, and met my plea
60 With song, approaching so her sweet sound sailed
To reach me with its meaning. Then, when she
Was where the grassy edge was lapped and bathed
By the river’s lovely waves, she had the grace
To lift her eyes to me, and they were swathed
In light, poured from her lids to flood her face
With such a brilliance that I don’t believe
Venus herself gave out in her surprise
When Cupid let loose and could not retrieve
His accidental arrow as her eyes
70 Were on Adonis. While she stood upright
On the other bank, she smiled as she arranged
Her many colours, flowering at that height
With no seeds needed. We two were estranged
By just the distance that the stream was wide:
Three paces only. But the Hellespont—
Where Xerxes had to cross back with his pride
In ruins, and Leander, for his want
Of Hero, had to swim from side to side
From Sestos to Abydos—never got
80 More hatred than this pretty trickle earned
From me, who wished it gone, but it was not.
“You’re new here. There are things you haven’t learned,”
She said, “And it’s perhaps because I smile
In this place set apart for humankind
To be its nest, you nurse your doubts awhile,
And there are clouds that linger in your mind.
But Delectasti is the psalm you should
Remember: ‘Lord, your work has made me glad,
And I will triumph.’ Those words, understood
90 Aright, for any qualms you ever had,
Will clear the mist with light. Now you are near
Before me, and are making your request,
So tell me if there’s more that you would hear.
I’ll set your curiosity at rest.”
“This water, and the branches, how they sound,”
I said, “fly in the face of what I heard
From Statius, of how this higher ground
Can never change.” And she: “Because the word
And fact seem different things, you marvel. How
100   This came to be, proceeding from its cause,
I can unravel for you here and now.
The Good Supreme, the grand sum of whose laws
Is His own pleasure, made man good, and made
Man love the good, and gave him this good place,
The Earthly Paradise. Man could have stayed
In peace here always. Such was not the case.
Through his own fault, his stay was only brief,
And honest laughter and sweet sport gave way
To tears, hard labour and abiding grief.
110   That the disturbances which, night and day,
The exhalations of the sea and land
Make there below—following where they may,
As students of those matters understand,
The ebb and flow of heat—should do no harm
To man, the mountain rose aloft thus far
To stand clear from the banished, and be calm.
But since the outer spheres, revolving, are
Moved by the Primum Mobile, that first
Rotation, unless interrupted, strikes
120   On this height—all impurities dispersed
From its surrounding air—and as it likes
It does. It makes the wood, for being dense,
Resound. The smitten plants have such
A potency, the air with their intense
Virtue is impregnated at a touch,
And so the wind must scatter it abroad,
And so the Northern Hemisphere, as both
Its fit self and its proper sky accord,
Brings forth, from diverse virtues, different growth.
130   This understood, small marvel would it seem
Down yonder, if some plant, no seed on show,
Should take root. In accordance with that theme,
This holy ground has every seed you know
Filling the soil, and fruits that are not picked
Back there. This water springs forth from no vein
Restored by vapour that the harshly strict
Cold has condensed (as earthly rivers gain
And lose their force), but from a constant, sure
Fountain it comes, and what pours forth like rain
140   By God’s will must return to fill a store
Open on either side. Thus virtue flows
Down one side, so, when men are bathed with it,
Their very memory of sin all goes,
And, on the other side, the opposite
Occurs, and memories of their good deeds
Return. The stream, on this side, bears the name
Of Lethe; on that, Eunoe. It needs
First to be sipped at from both sides the same
To be effective, and there is no taste
150   Sweeter than this. And though your thirst may well
Be satisfied by this outline I’ve traced,
There’s something more that I feel bound to tell
Just for your joy, and though these words may go
Beyond my brief, I think you’ll find they meet
Your approbation. Those old names you know
Who once sang of a golden age replete
With happiness, perhaps exulted so
Because they dreamed of this place. On their peak,
Parnassus, their minds filled with this one. Spring
160   Eternal. Human innocence. All speak
Of just such fruit, nectar in everything.
Ovid himself said all this would come true.”
She paused. Right then I turned around to my
Two poets, and I saw what they could do
Instead of speech. They smiled, and she was why.
Then once again the fair one caught my eye.
When I turned back to her I heard the rest.
Though she had done with speaking, she sang on,
As if in love, “But how all those are blessed
Whose sins are pardoned!” and I was far gone
In thoughts of nymphs, alone in woodland shade,
Who wander, one alert to see the sun,
The other to avoid it. So she made
Her way upstream against the rippling run,
With little steps along the bank, and I
10 Kept level. In a hundred strides or less
The two banks made an equal bend, and by
My reckoning, which I’d call a good guess,
We now faced east again. We’d not gone far
That way, when suddenly she turned, and said:
“My brother, look and listen.” Few things are
Sudden like lightning. This was. In my head,
As brightness swept the forest all around,
I told myself it must be lightning, yet,
Since lightning disappears as soon as found,
20 And this grew brighter still, I hedged my bet,
And asked myself “What’s this?” And then a sound,
A melody, ran sweet through shining air,
And so my zeal for good caused me to blame
Eve’s boldness, that a woman—when and where
All in the earth and sky obeyed the same
Divine will—should decline to further bear
(For she was only just formed, and alone)
The veil of ignorance, for, had she stayed
Submissive underneath it, I’d have known,
30 Like all men, this whole limitless parade
Of indescribable delights before,
And for far longer. While I went among
So many first fruits in the mighty store
Of bliss eternal—while my will was hung
Suspended in desire of all the more
Of joys and miracles—the air caught fire
Beneath the green boughs, and that lovely sound
Exploded into songs, choir upon choir.
Virgins most holy! Muses! Stony ground,
40 Cold, hunger, vigils, I have borne for you, not true?
But now my need drives me to ask reward.
Now let the whole of Helicon come through
With what it owes me, all it can afford.
Urania and her singers should step in
To help me versify things hard for thought,
Such as the following.
I can begin
By saying that my puzzled eye was caught,
A little further on, by seven trees
Of gold, or what appeared to us as such,
50 A false impression reinforced to please
Our credulous perception by how much
Distance remained from us to them. But when
I’d come so near that these deceiving shapes
Remained ambiguous no longer, then
The faculty which no deceit escapes,
The power of reason, saw them as they were:
As candlesticks, and heard the voices sing
“Hosanna!” And up there without a blur
It flew alone, the lovely spreading thing.
60 More than the moon in the clear midnight sky
Of her mid-month, that fine array was bright.
I turned around with wonder in my eye
To Virgil, and his look had the same light
Of sheer amazement, and I lifted high
My face again to those things, which moved near
To us so slowly new brides would have been
More quick. The lady scorned me. “You appear
Amazed by just the living lights you’ve seen.
Where is your heed for what is not yet here
70 Yet comes behind them?” I saw people, then,
Who followed, clad in white: white so intense
As here there never was, and then again
The water shone so to my left, that hence,
As from a mirror, came my left side back
To my eyes when I gazed. When I was at
The part where just the streamlet kept my track
From meeting theirs, for a better view than that
I paused, and let the flames move on, to stain
Like streaming pennons all the air behind
80 With seven tinctures, as the sun and rain
Bring forth a bow in colours of rich kind,
And Delian Diana’s girdle glows.
Beyond my sight the banners went back, and
As well as mortal eyes see or mind knows,
The outermost exemplars of that band
Of candelabra were ten paces set
Apart. Beneath the fair sky I describe,
Two dozen elders crowned with lilies met
My gaze two at a time. “Among the tribe
90 Of Adam’s daughters,” they sang, “you are blessed,
And blessed forever let your beauty be!”
The flowers and fresh leaves were left to rest
On the far bank by that light infantry
Of the elect. As brilliance follows soon
On brilliance there in heaven, came four more
Creatures on after, and these had the boon
Of green-leaf crowns, and each one of the four
Had six wings, all their plumage full of eyes,
And if the eyes of Argus were alive
100   They’d look like that. But lack of time denies
That I be lavish with my rhymes, and strive
In their depiction. Read Ezekiel,
Who saw them when they came in from the cold
With wind and cloud and fire, and just as well
As he described them then, his words of old
Applied here, save the figure of six wings
That Revelation gives them meets my count,
And not his four. (John had the truth of things
In this respect, and got the right amount.)
110   But anyway, between those four the space
Contained a fine two-wheeled triumphal car
Drawn by a griffin, which employed the place
On each side of the middle band—as far
On each side as the first of three—to spread
Its wings among the coloured streaks without
Cutting through any, and the wings instead
Rose so high that their tips left you in doubt
Where they might be. Where this bird could be said
To be bird, it was all gold, and where man,
120   Was white mingled with red. Nor even Rome
Had honoured Scipio the African
Or great Augustus, when it cheered them home,
With so exultant a conveyance. Not
The sun itself could equal it: the sun
Whose carriage was destroyed when Phaethon got
His signals mixed, and Jove paid heed to one
Of Earth’s devout prayers. He chose to be just
In secret counsel. And three ladies danced
A round at the right wheel. One, red as rust,
130   Was so red you’d have missed her had she pranced
Inside a fire. One more of emerald
Seemed made. The third looked like fresh-fallen snow.
The white one first, and then the red one, called
The time, and from that song’s pulse, fast or slow,
They moved. And on the left, four others tripped
Their festival. They were in purple clad,
Their measure set by one who hopped and skipped
With three eyes in her head. The whole troop had,
Behind it, two old men in different dress,
140   From one another, but alike in grave
And lofty bearing, their shared seriousness.
One showed the spirit by which nature gave
The world Hippocrates, to help mankind
When ill. The other showed the opposite
Concern, for its sword, lifted, chilled my mind
Across the river’s width, so brightly lit
And sharp it seemed, to castigate the soul.
Then came four humble holy ones. At last
An old man walked who slept, and yet his whole
150   Expression spoke for keenness. As they passed,
The final seven looked clad like the first,
Except this time no lily crowns were worn,
But roses and red flowers, an outburst
Of crimson round the brow I would have sworn,
From where I stood, was fire. And then a halt
Was called. A mighty thunderclap was heard.
The car had stopped, right there. The storm’s assault
Appeared to mean permission was deferred
For that throng to go further. There it stood,
160   The pageant, flags in front. The force for good.
Unlike the Bear that helps us navigate,
But still its seven stars must come and go
Or wear a misty veil, it was the state
Of this Wain, here above, to never know
Such flux. In their First Heaven they stood still,
The seven candelabra. Only sin
Could fluster them. They shone on, to fulfil
Their task. Between their light and the griffin
The truthful squad turned to the car as will
10 A man who seeks peace. Like a messenger
From Heaven, one sang out this line. “My spouse,
Now come with me from Lebanon.” Nor were
The others slow to match him. As the house
Of all the blessed shall fill, at the last blast
Of trumpets, with souls leaping from the tomb,
Their voices once again what in the past
They were, and their song for the crack of doom
Will ring out Hallelujah! thus arose
There on the car, called by the elder’s voice,
20 A hundred representatives of those
Who speak for life eternal. “Yours the choice
To come, and you are blessed,” they cried, and threw
Flowers aloft and all around, and then
They quoted Virgil, all of whom they knew,
Transmitting God’s word through the words of men:
“Give lilies with full hands.” At break of day
I once saw all the eastern vista turn
Rose coloured, and the sky, clear every way
Elsewhere, was lovely, for the sun’s full burn
30 Was softened as its face glowed in a shroud
Of vapours, and the naked eye could bear
The sight a long time. So, within a cloud
Of flowers rising here and falling there,
Flung from the angels’ hands, a lady shone,
Her white veil girt with olive, mantle green,
Fretted with living fire. And then my soul,
Which had for years felt no cause for the awe
By which her living form once made my whole
Existence tremble, now, though barred from more
40 Knowledge by eye, still registered the force
Of hidden virtue and my erstwhile love.
Sight struck by virtue in its lofty course—
Pierced once again, now I was here above,
As once I was in boyhood—I turned left
With confidence, as any child will run
To mother when of fortitude bereft,
And said to Virgil “Not a drop, not one
Of blood remains in me that does not shake.
I know the sure signs of an ancient flame.”
50 But Virgil, who’d done so much for my sake,
Virgil my father, Virgil, he that came
For me to give myself and him to take
Me onward to salvation, now was gone.
Nor did all Eden’s sweetness, lost by Eve,
The ancient mother, take effect upon
My cheeks, dew-washed so all tear-stains should leave,
But here they were again. She said “Dante,
Weep not that Virgil leaves you, weep not yet.
For you must yet weep in another way,
60 For your sins.” Just then, when I tried to get
A clear view of the figure that so spoke
My name—I note this, just to pay my debt
To sheer necessity—there, at a stroke,
I saw a lady at the car’s left side,
A fleet commander gone from stern to prow
To see the other captains fight the tide
Of hardship and to urge them on, and now
The lady, who had just appeared to me
Veiled in the festival of angels, fixed
70 Her eyes on mine beyond the stream, and she,
Although her veil was still full, and was mixed
With olive leaves, which was Minerva’s sign,
And therefore she could not be plainly seen,
Yet royally, like one with the design
Of holding back the heat her words might mean
While speaking, said this: “Look. Look at me well,
For I am Beatrice indeed. How do
You dare approach this mountain. Can you tell?
For man is happy here, yet here are you.”
80 My glance fell to the clear fount, but I met
Myself, and brought it back up to the grass
Because shame weighed my brow. So children get
The collywobbles when their mothers pass
Judgement through pity. She was silent. Then
As one, the angels sang this. “Lord, in you
I had hope.” But they all stopped singing when
They’d done the first nine verses, and come to
The bit about the feet and the large rooms.
Just as, along the back of Italy,
90 The snow piles up and solidly entombs
The tree trunks as the wind’s intensity
Increases from the northeast, but will melt
When, out of Africa, the south wind blows,
And dribble like a candle that has felt
The fire, just so was I, as, first, I froze
And had no tears or sighs before they sang
In concert with the music of the spheres,
But when I heard that the deep, melting pang
Of their song fit for supernatural ears
100   Was all for me, then, more than if they’d said
“Lady, why shame him so?” the ice around
My heart turned breath and water, and it spread
With anguish through my mouth and eyes, unbound
From my tight breast. Still standing motionless
On the same side of the car, she then addressed
The good souls in their pitying distress.
“You watch the world a long day without rest
So neither night nor sleep can hide a thing
That goes on or is ready to begin.
110   Therefore my answer’s made considering
Him weeping yonder more than you, so sin
And sorrow may be measured in like terms.
Not just by how the distant great wheels spin—
A movement which assigns and so confirms
An end to each seed as the stars dictate—
But by his lavish gift of the divine
Graces that rain from such a lofty state
Our sight can’t reach the vapours that consign
The blessing, so in early life this man
120   Had every gift and talent in the book
For the fulfilment of a marvellous plan.
But often, when the soul has that good look
Of strength, the ground grows poisonous and wild
With matching vigour, as if bad seed took
A deeper root: bright prospects are defiled.
My countenance sustained him for a space.
I brought him with me, with my youthful eyes,
The right way. But I reached the entry place
Of proper youth, where adolescence dies,
130   At twenty-five, and there he turned his face
Away from me, his wishes otherwise.
My state was raised from beauty of the flesh
To that of soul, and virtue so increased
In me that I became less dear, less fresh,
Less welcome, and his questing steps soon ceased
To come my way, and went another way
Less true, after false images of good
Which keep no promises: nor did it pay,
Through dreams and all the other means I could,
140   To call him back, for he would not pay heed.
He fell so low, all means to save him fell
Short of the task. Deciding I would need
To show him the Lost People down in Hell,
I visited the threshold of the pit
And heaped with prayers the one that brought him here,
And every prayer in tears. No help for it:
God’s high decrees would crack and hold no fear
If Lethe could be passed without a writ
Of penitence, and its dear sweet taste kept
150   Delicious in the mouth, with no tears wept.”