Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 4–6 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 4–6

Let pain or pleasure touch a faculty
Of ours, and soon our soul will concentrate
Entirely on that. It seems to be
Alert to that one power: all others wait.
And this exclusiveness is contrary
To any notion that one soul has been
Brought high above our several souls (for such
Was Plato’s error). That a thing we’ve seen
Or heard can occupy the soul so much,
10 Time passes and one doesn’t know it—for
The faculty attuned to it is one,
And that which holds the whole soul is one more,
The first one bound, the second free to run—
Of this I had experience. This soul,
Manfred, I’d heard and marvelled at, and while
I’d been absorbed, the sun had climbed a whole
Fifty degrees, and, in my usual style,
I hadn’t seen it do so. Then we came
To where the spirits all together cried
20 “Here’s what you want!” An opening the same
In shape, but many times as wide,
The peasant fills with forkfuls of thick thorn
To keep thieves from the grapes when they grow dark.
Our own gap in a hedge we now found torn
Before us in the rock. That was our mark,
Now that the group had left us. You can go
Up to San Leo or down all the way
To Noli or climb where the rock is so
Steep at Bismantova the locals say
30 The town’s a summit, and all that on foot:
But here you had to fly—with the quick wings,
I mean, of great desire, with plumage put
To the high task of following what brings
Us hope, the guidance that for me made light.
We climbed inside the rock. The surface on
Each side pressed close to us. The walls were tight.
The floor was rough, for hands and feet. Upon
All fours, almost, we reached the upper edge
Of the high bank, on the open hillside. “So,
40 Master,” I said, “Which way?” There on the ledge
He said “Not one step back. The way to go
Is up, and close behind me, till some wise
Guide comes for us.” The summit was so high
It went beyond the limits of my eyes.
The slope went up more steeply through the sky
Than a right angle bisected. I was spent
When I spoke thus: “Sweet father, look back here.
Unless you stop, I’m left alone.” He bent
Back down, and said “My son, a place is near
50 Where you may rest awhile. Just drag yourself
As far as there.” He pointed to the rim,
Above, of what soon proved to be a shelf
That ran around the hill. Inspired by him,
I forced myself to clamber the last few
Hard yards behind him till the ground turned flat.
We sat there facing east, from which we two
Had come, as Revelation does, so that
Was probably a help. The shore below
Was where I bent my eyes first. Then I raised
60 Them to the sun, and marvelled we were so
Struck by it from the north. It should have blazed,
In summer, south. The Poet noted well
How stunned I was the chariot of light
Went by in the wrong place. “If it befell,”
He said, “that, parties to this brilliant sight,
Along with the sun’s mirror, were the twins
Castor and Pollux, then that glowing wheel
The Zodiac, whose timeless flight begins
And ends in north and south, you’d now see steal
70 Still closer to the Bears, unless it quit
Its usual path. If you would ponder how
This thing might be, put all your mind to it:
Picture Jerusalem and this hill. Now
Think of them placed on Earth so that they share
Just one horizon, but their hemispheres
Are each their own. Then, in the air,
You’ll see how Phaethon’s highway here appears—
The road he failed on and so sealed his fate—
On this side of the mountain, and Zion
80 On that. Just think about it. Concentrate.”
“Truly,” I said, “Master, my doubts are gone.
I can see clearly now—as never yet,
For lack of wit—that the mid-circle of
Celestial motion, which is always set
Between the sun and winter up above—
The Equator, to use the special name
One science gives it—lies, and you said why,
As north from here as Hebrews saw the same
Straight line move south towards a different day,
90 On hotter land. But if it pleases you,
I’d like to know how far we have to go.
This mountain needs more than my eyes can do
To reach its peak.” And he: “The start below
On this hill’s always hard, but as you climb
Higher, it takes less effort. Therefore, when
It seems so pleasant, in the course of time,
That going up is far less taxing, then—
When the ascent is like a drift downstream
By boat—then you will find the high trail’s end.
100   There you may rest your weariness. I deem
This to be truth. This answer I defend,
And say no more.” As soon as he had said
These words, a voice nearby: “Perhaps before
You get that far you’ll need a seat.” Eyes led
By that sound, we both turned, and there we saw
A great stone we had neither of us seen
Till then. We went there. There were people there
In the shade, resting, as men whose rest has been
Sought out through indolence. One, with an air
110   Of weariness, his arms around his knees,
Sat with his face between them. “My dear lord,”
I said, “Behold, for here are mysteries:
The laziness of this one could afford
Comparison with Sloth, as if she were
His energetic sister.” The soul turned,
Slowly took note of us, and deigned to stir
His face above his thigh, so I discerned
An inch of space between them. “You’re so strong?”
He said. “Go up.” I knew who it must be,
120   And my fatigued breath, still short from the long
Ascent, only for moments hindered me
From going to him. He scarce raised his head
When I reached him. “Have you made out the way
The chariot is driven,” the soul said,
“By the sun past your left shoulder?” His display
Of lazy movement and his few words moved
My lips to smile a little. I began:
“Belacqua, since your future is approved
I do not grieve for you. But if you can
130   Summon the urge, pray tell me why you sit
Just here. Is there an escort you await?
Or are you back to form? Can that be it?
Slow off the mark and always running late?”
And he: “My brother, tell me what’s the use
Of going up. God’s angel at the gate
Would never let me through on an excuse
To meet the torments. First the heavens must
Revolve around me, while I wait outside,
As long as when I lived—and it is just,
140   Because it was so late I rightly sighed—
Unless a helpful prayer should first arise
From some indulgent heart that lives in grace.
A sinner’s pleading scarcely signifies
In Heaven.” Now the Poet took his place
Before me, saying “Come on, use your eyes:
The sun strikes the meridian, and night
Treads on Morocco’s shore and its last light.”
I had already parted from those shades
And followed in my Leader’s steps, when one
Behind me cried “But look how the light fades!”
He pointed at my walking shadow. “None
Of all the rays shine to his left below.
He seems to bear himself like one alive.”
I turned to see who should be speaking so
And saw them watching, buzzing like a hive,
Amazed at me and at my broken light.
10 “Why,” said my Guide, “so tangled in the mind?
How can you be concerned by what they might
Be murmuring there? Stay with me close behind
And let them talk. Stand like a tower, staunch,
Unshaken at its top by gusts of wind,
For always when a man has thoughts that launch
Themselves one from the next, his mark is pinned
Further away, as one thought drains the force
Out of the other.” So what could I say
Except “I come”? I said it with remorse
20 And felt my face gain colour in a way
That sometimes makes a man fit to receive
A pardon. Meanwhile people walked across
The slope ahead, and sang, as if to grieve,
The Miserere line by line. But loss
Was not their fate, for Mercy, I believe,
Was theirs already, although in the psalm
They went on pleading for it. When they saw
The way I blocked the sun, they changed their calm
Cantata to an “Oh!” long-drawn and raw,
30 And one of them, the messenger, ran out
To meet us, asking “What should you disclose?”
My Guide: “You can go back and be about
Your business straight away of telling those
Who sent you that this man is made of flesh,
And if his shadow stopped them, that should be
Sufficient answer: they need none afresh.
Just do him honour and collect the fee.”
I never saw at nightfall the clear sky
Cloven by kindled vapour in a streak
40 Of light, nor ever saw the lightning fly
Through sunset clouds in August—here I speak
Of things on Earth—to match for sudden speed
The way those two returned above, and when
They reached the rest, they turned, thus to proceed
With them towards us, as a troop of men
Turned into horses given rein might run.
“These souls are many and they come to press
Petitions on us,” said the Poet. “None
Should stop you. Move on. Make your pace no less,
50 And listen as you go.” “O soul that goes
With, for your bliss, the self-same limbs that you
Were born with,” they cried as they came, “Suppose
You slowed your steps a little. If you knew
Any of us before—look hard—you could
Take news of us back yonder. Why go on?
Why don’t you stop? Hear what we say. You should.
For all of us by violence died, far gone
In sin until the last hour, when the blaze
Of Heaven’s light brought understanding. We,
60 Repenting and forgiving, from life’s ways
Emerged into God’s peace. The urge to see
Our benefactor fills our yearning heart.”
And I: “I search your faces thoroughly,
But don’t see one I know. All that apart,
If there is anything, souls born for bliss,
That I can do to please you, by the peace
Which I go seeking from that world to this
With such a guide to follow, I’ll not cease
Striving to get it done.” And one began:
70 “In your good offices it needs no oath
If there be power enough for the will’s plan:
Therefore, before the rest I’m nothing loth
To speak. If ever you should see the land
Lying between Romagna and that held
By Charles—by which I mean, you understand,
All Naples—then I pray you be impelled
By courtesy to beg them in Fano
Good prayers be made for me, so that I may
Purge my grave sins, for I am Jacopo,
80 Who came from there, but I was far away
Near Padua when all my deep wounds poured
My life’s blood, and the sons of Antenor,
Heirs to the Trojan traitor, could afford
No safety to me. He of Este bore
The burden of the crime, if not the sword.
He hated me beyond the bounds of law,
Yet if towards La Mira I had turned
My flight, after his horsemen tracked me down
At Oriaco, then I might have spurned
90 My fate, and taken refuge in that town
And still be up there, breathing. But I ran
Into the marsh. Trapped by the reeds and mud
I fell full length, the measure of a man,
And saw the spreading pool of my own blood.”
Another spoke: “As I pray your desire
Be satisfied, that draws you to the high
And fruitful hill, just so may I require
Your gracious pity’s helping hand. For I
Was born in Montefeltro: Guido’s son,
100   Buonconte. Not my wife, Giovanna, no,
Nor anybody else, not even one,
Has care for me. And so alone I go,
Even among all these with downcast brow.”
And I to him: “What force, what chance, took you
So far from Campaldino no one now
Knows where your body’s buried? It was true
We beat your Ghibellines, but you, somehow,
Were not among the dead.” And he: “A creek
Below the Casentino’s foot they call
110   The Archiano. It comes down from the peak
Above the Hermitage. For all its fall
The Apennines surround it. To the place
Where that small stream gives up its early name,
With wounded throat and flying foot, a trace
Of dark blood all across the plain, I came.
Then I lost sight and speech. I had the grace
To end by naming Mary as I fell,
And just my flesh remained. But now I would
Say what is true. Make it the truth you tell
120   Among the living. God in his great good
Sent down His Angel, and the one from Hell
Cried ‘You from Heaven, why do you rob me?
You take from me this man’s eternal part
For just one little tear. It’s larceny.
But with his mortal flesh I’ll make a start
On dealing in another way!’ You know
How humid vapour, gathering in the air,
Returns as rainfall when its upward flow
Climbs to the colder realm which holds it there
130   Until it liquefies, then lets it go?
The Prince of Ill-Will has a mind to care
Only for evil, and he moves the cloud
And wind by his peculiar natural force.
So Campaldino’s valley, where a shroud
Of mist, when that sad day had run its course,
Covered the mountains rising from the plain
From Pratomagno to the peaks. The sky
Turned dense, the saturated air made rain:
More water than the earth could nullify
140   Flooded the ditches, and the rivulets
Collected in the streams that fed the great
River that finds the sea. No one forgets
The Arno rules us in a princely state
Even when it’s at peace, but now its source,
The Archiano, rampaged at such a pace
Nothing before it could resist its force.
The torrent found my frozen corpse. Its face
Swallowed me up and swept me on, until
The Arno took apart upon my breast
150   The cross I made when pain had worked its will
And overwhelmed me. All along its banks
And bed the river rolled me. Then it decked
Me with its spoils, and so I owe it thanks
For giving me a grave none can detect.”
The third soul spoke: “When you return into
The world, and rest has eased the price you paid
For this long road, think how I said to you:
Siena made me. What Siena made
Was broken by Maremma. And think who
160   Said this. I am La Pia, murdered on
The orders of my husband; locked away
And dealt with so that he might, with me gone,
Marry again. He’s still up there today.
He knows about it, he who with his jewel
Pledged love, and faith, and wed me, and was cruel.”
The game of chance breaks up, the loser stays
Behind and grieves. He thinks about his throws
Over and over. In his mind, he plays
Again, sad lesson learned. The winner goes,
And all the rest go with him, one in front;
Another grabs him from behind; one more
Is by his side, a lapdog at the hunt,
Whining “Remember me?” He can’t ignore
Them all, but he does not stop moving while
10 He listens first to this one and then that,
And gives each one his hand and a small smile
So they will fall back satisfied, and at
The right point he is set free from the throng:
He saves himself. So, in that crowd, was I:
I turned my face to them, first here, then there,
And by my promises got free. To die
By violence had been the fate to share
Between these: I could see the Aretine,
A judge, that fierce Ghino di Tacco killed
20 In open court; the next had fled the scene
From Campaldino and his lungs had filled
With water; and there begged with outstretched hands
Federico, a Novello, beaten dead
In battle; that slain youth from Pisan lands
Whose father, good Marzucco, was, instead
Of plotting his revenge, moved to forgive
The murderers. Count Orso I saw, too,
Whose cousin worked it so he should not live;
And that soul severed, if the tale is true,
30 By spite and envy from its body, not
By that crime he was hanged for: yes, Pierre
De la Brosse. May she not say she forgot
That story when she’s here, and find it fair,
The Lady of Brabant, that no worse lot
Than being sent to this flock is her fate.
As soon as I was free of them, whose one
And only prayer, while they were forced to wait,
Was for the prayers of others, thus to run
Sooner to holiness, I said: “To me
40 It seems, my Light, you took pains to deny
Through Palinurus, a divine decree
Is ever bent by prayer, and that was why
He never reached the kingdom of the dead,
Yet these here pray for prayer alone. Will they,
Too, pray in vain, or are those words you said
Something I didn’t take in the right way?”
“My writing’s plain,” he told me, “and the hope
Of these souls is well founded. You just think
With sound mind now as we ascend: the slope
50 Ends at the height of justice. Will it sink
Simply because the fire of love supplies
In one quick flash what each soul here is owed
In satisfaction? What I wrote implies
A prayer was bound to fail that had no road
To God. But such a question is too deep
For you to take a stand on, without first
Hearing from her who in the full great sweep
Of light from mind to faith is so well versed.
I speak of Beatrice. Did I puzzle you?
60 Above us, on the mountain’s lofty peak,
Her smile and ecstasy will fill your view.”
“My lord,” I said as soon as I could speak,
“Can we go faster? I’m less weary now,
And see, the mountain casts a shadow.” “We’ll
Go on with this day’s march,” he said “as much
As light permits. And yet, be sure what’s real
Is far from what you think. Before you touch
The peak above, you’ll see that one return
Who now lies hidden in behind the hill
70 So you don’t break his beam. But look and learn:
See there a soul who sits alone, and will—
He looks towards us—point the quickest route.”
We came to him. Ah, Lombard shade, how high
And mighty was your poise, how absolute
The dignity behind the steely eye
Of your regard! He said no word to us.
He would have let us pass. He only gazed,
A crouching lion. Nothing to discuss.
But Virgil went right up to him and raised
80 The question of the best ascent. He gave
No answer, but inquired of our birthplace
And our condition. “Mantua . . .” my grave
But gentle Guide began. The shade, a case
Till then of total self-involvement, leapt
Towards him, saying “Mantua! Behold
Sordello of your city!” And each swept
The other close as eager arms could fold.
Slave Italy! Hostel of grief! Lost ship
Without a pilot in a storm! No more
90 Princess of peoples but a swarming tip!
A brothel! Think of what you were before
And could have been again! This noble soul
Was so keen, just for his dear city’s name,
To greet its citizen, and now your whole
Country is never free from sword and flame,
And all the living are shut in with wall
And moat, and each enclosure does the same—
Chews at the others. Wretched one, search all
Your seashores, then look deep within
100   Your breast, and see if any part rejoice
In peace. What boots it that Justinian
Gave you the reins of law to guide your choice?
The saddle’s empty, the horse riderless,
Left to itself. If there had never been
A law, there had been less shame to confess,
But you know what restraint was meant to mean,
So your excess is strictly recklessness.
You clergy, who were pledged to be devout,
And should, if you paid God’s instructions heed,
110   Let Caesar ride the horse, the truth is out:
From lack of guidance by his spurs, the steed
Turned vicious, for its bridle, in your hand,
Can only lead astray. Ah, Emperor!
Albert of Saxony, who saw our land
Not even once, and who abandoned her
To be what she’s become, savage and wild!
You that should now bestride her saddle-bow,
Let starry judgement fall on man and child:
Let your successor fear forthcoming woe!
120   You and your father Rudolph, both held back
By greed, have let your Empire’s garden go
To pieces, desolation, ruin, rack.
Come see the Montagues and Capulets
Monaldi, Filippeschi, families ranged
Against each other, those that grace forgets,
Wretched, in dread, because you were estranged,
Having no care. Come, cruel one, come and see
Your nobles in distress and soothe their pain.
You’ll see the level of security
130   In Santafiora, where Siena’s gain
Means loss of land for all those Ghibellines.
Come see your Rome, that, widowed and alone,
Weeps night and day. “Caesar, my lord,” it keens,
“Why aren’t you here with me?” Come see your own,
Your people, how they love each other. Or,
If our plight fails to move your pity, come
For shame of your repute. If it be law
For me, supreme Jehovah—you, the sum
Of all good, who were crucified on Earth
140   For us—to question you, are your just eyes
Turned elsewhere, or do you arrange the birth
In the chasm of your counsel for some guise
Of good we are unable to perceive?
For all our cities here in Italy
Are full of tyrants. Even clowns believe
That playing partisan means they must be
Marcellus, dreaming he made Caesar grieve
By talk against the Empire. You may well,
My Florence, take your ease at this
150   Digression, which has little truth to tell
About you, for your people never miss
A trick in their resource. Others, at heart,
Have justice, but that arrow leaves the bow
Too slowly, for the thought must play its part
Of what the heart means: but your people know
Law only at the tongue’s tip. Others avoid
The weight of office, but your people cry,
Unasked, their eagerness to be employed.
“I’ll bear the burden!” A good reason why
160   You should be happy, for your cause is good:
So rich, and so at peace, and oh so wise.
I speak a truth borne out by facts. Nor could
Athens and Sparta, chosen to devise
The ancient laws and thus be civil, give
One hint beside you of the proper way,
My Florence, that a city ought to live.
You make provisions so fine every day
The threads you spin in one month do not last
To the middle of the next. Can you recall
170   How often you’ve changed, in your chequered past,
Your laws, your money, offices, and all
Your customs? And thrown out your active men
Or brought them back, according to which crew
Is in control of cleaning up the den?
And if you see yourself unblinking, you
See a sick woman who turns seeking rest
On a bed of down, but is no less distressed.