Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 7–9 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 7–9

After these greetings, proud yet high of heart,
Had been repeated three times and once more,
Sordello drew back. When they stood apart
He said “But who are you?” Virgil: “Before
Souls worthy of the climb to God came here
To this hill, my dead bones were buried by
Augustus. I am Virgil. For that mere
Defect—lack of the faith that I could not
Have had, because a child was not yet born—
10 I lost Heaven.” So spoke Virgil of his lot.
As one who marvels at the sudden dawn
Before him of a thing he both believes
And disbelieves, and says ‘It is . . . and yet
It isn’t . . .’ and then finally retrieves
His power to move, Sordello with bent head
Again went humbly to my lord, embraced
Him low down as the lowly do, and said
“O Glory of the Latins, you that graced
Our tongue and proved its power to the Earth,
20 What deed of mine or blessing shows me you?
Honour eternal for my place of birth!
If I deserve your words, tell me what’s true:
You came from Hell? Which cloister?” Virgil then:
“Through all that kingdom’s circles of regret
I have come here. But it was only when
The power of Heaven helped, that I could set
My aim this high. It’s not that I did wrong,
But I did nothing, and so lost the sight
Of that high Holy Sun for which you long,
30 And I knew of too late. Out of the light,
Below, there is a place where sadness lies
In darkness, not in torment; where laments
Are never cries of pain but only sighs.
There I abide with little innocents,
Seized by death’s fangs before they reached the prize
Of baptism, and so they were not free
Of human guilt; and also I abide
With all those souls who aren’t clad by the three
Virtues called holy, but set sin aside
40 Through following the other four. Yet we
Would hear from you—if you know and may say—
Directions by which we might quickly climb
To where true Purgatory begins. Which way?”
Sordello said “But now you’re pressed for time.
For us here, no unchanging place is set.
I may go up and round. I’ll go as far
With you as I’m allowed, but not quite yet.
See how the day declines. From where you are,
To go by night up higher can’t be done.
50 It’s time to find a refuge. See these shades
Here on the right, apart from everyone?
If you consent, before the last light fades,
I’ll bring you to them. They’ll be overjoyed
To meet you.” Virgil answered: “How is that?
Does that mean someone who climbed in the void
Of night would miss what he was aiming at
Because of some external force, or would
He just lack strength?” “You should not cross this line
After the sun is gone.” So said the good
60 Sordello, and with his finger made the sign
There on the ground. “Though be it understood,
There’s nothing else to hinder your ascent
Except the dark that tangles up your will
With helplessness. You even might have meant
To go back down, yet wander round the hill
For all the time the sun is locked out by
The dark horizon.” And my lord, as though
In thought, said “Lead us there, where we may lie
At ease as you have said.” And it was so:
70 We’d gone a little way, when I saw how
The mountain’s face was scooped out, just as though
A valley pierced a mountain here and now.
“We’ll go there,” said the shade, “where that slope makes
A shelter, and await the sun’s return.”
A level, winding path with sudden breaks
Of steepness, brought us where, we would soon learn,
The dell’s wall at half height looked down upon
A garden. Gold, fine silver, cochineal,
White lead, and indigo spread so it shone
80 Both bright and clear, and emerald with the seal
Of its hard skin split, all these were outsoared
In colour by the grass and flowers there
Foregathered on the valley floor, greensward
Ablaze with pigments. Nor did the soft air
Fall short of this parade of nature’s tints:
A thousand perfumes, each sweet on its own,
Made one, a blend that I have not known since—
Nor, to men living, was it ever known.
From where I was I saw, on that bright green
90 Among the flowers, spirits that sang the last
Hymn of the day, by which, of course, I mean
Salve Regina. Beyond the valley’s rim
They were unseen. “Soon now the sun will sink,
And find its nest,” the Mantuan began
Who had directed us. “Yet do not think
Before it does, to ask me if I can
Lead you among them there. But from this bank
You’ll see each face and movement better than
If you were down there with them. Highest rank,
100   And therefore highest seat, goes to that one
Who has the look of letting duty lapse.
See how his lips are still, while there are none
But him who do not sing. And he, perhaps—
Rudolph the Emperor—he might have healed
The wounds that have slain Italy. Too late
For someone else to save her. Her fate’s sealed.
That other one, who seems to comfort him,
Rules where the waters spring that the Moldau
Brings to the Elbe, fills it to the brim,
110   And the Elbe takes them to the sea. Where now
Reigns Wenceslas, there once reigned Ottokar,
His father, who in swaddling bands was worth
More than his bearded wanton son by far.
And he whose nose is of small height and girth,
So cheek by jowl with him of the fair face,
The first is Philip, third king of that name,
Who led the fleur-de-lis to great disgrace,
And died of shame and heartbreak. A sad fame
To have. No wonder here he beats his breast.
120   And see the other one, who lays his cheek
Upon his hand and sighs, more than the rest:
Henry the Fat, King of Navarre. We seek
In those two the twin fathers of the pest
Of France, Philip IV, hard to forgive;
He sent the papacy to Avignon.
The foul and vicious way he chose to live
They both know, and the grief is never gone,
But like a lance it pierces them. And he
So strong and handsome, wore a belt of strands
130   One each for all the virtues, proud to be
Peter of Aragon. Beside him stands
Charles of Anjou (that long-nosed one, you see?):
A vicious streak, but still the first great Guelph.
And if the youth who sits behind him had
Reigned longer after than the man himself,
His virtue, all the good and nothing bad,
Might well have passed from one cup to the next.
But Peter died before his father. Nor
Were all those other heirs of his less vexed:
140   James, who had ruled in Sicily before
He did in Aragon, and Frederick, who
Took Sicily, each has his realm, but not
A better heritage. Those times are few
That human worth hangs on to what it’s got
While rising through the branches. This holds true
Because who gives it wills it must be sought
From Him. I speak of that one with the nose
Not less than Peter. To them both, that thought
Applies. Apulia is in the throes
150   Of pain. So is Proenza. There was need,
From Charles to Charles, of a maintained process.
The plant was so much stronger than the seed,
The second to the first was that much less
In force than Peter to the second. See
Henry of England sitting there alone
Who ruled his life with pure simplicity,
He fathered one who did well on his own:
Edward, that brave boy. He that sits most low
Among them, on the ground, and with raised eyes,
160   Is Marquis William Longsword, whom we know
Lived in a cage, held as a human prize
By Alessandria, and died, and so
Let loose the war, and Monferrato weeps
And Canavese: war that never sleeps.
Now was the hour that longing turns around,
For sailors, towards what they left behind;
The hour that melts their hearts when, outward bound
For just one day, the last light brings to mind
That they have said goodbye to dearest friends;
The hour that pierces the new pilgrim deep
With love, if he should hear what the bell sends
From far away, the sound of chimes that weep
In mourning for the dying day. It ends
10 In sadness, and I started not to hear
Sordello, as a soul had caught my eye
Who’d risen and made signs to catch my ear.
He lifted his joined palms, stared at the sky
Eastward, and seemed to say “Nothing I care
For anything but that.” A Latin phrase,
Te lucis ante, floated on the air:
The prayer at nightfall. Such sweet interplay
Of notes came from his lips, and so devout,
That I was taken from myself, and then
20 They all joined in, and sang the hymn throughout,
Sweetly and piously, and once again
They eyed the starry wheels of the divine.
Now look with sharpened eye towards what’s true,
Reader, for surely here the veil’s so fine
That going in is scarcely hard to do.
I saw that noble host, without a sign
Or word, pallid and humbled, look on high
As if in expectation, and I saw
Appear above and come down from the sky
30 Two angels, and the flaming swords they bore
Were broken short, without points. Garments green
As leaves born just a breath ago they wore,
Trailing behind them. These clothes could be seen
To fluctuate, made airy by their wings.
One stopped and took his stand a little bit
Above us, and the other varied things
By landing on the far bank, thus to fit
The company between them. Their blond hair
Was plain to see. Their faces, though, left me
40 Bedazzled, since no faculty can bear
Excess. “Both angels are the progeny
Of Mary’s bosom,” said Sordello. “They
Keep watch here on the valley, for the snakes
Will shortly come.” Not knowing quite which way
To turn, I turned around, chilled with the shakes,
And sought the trusty shoulder. “Now let’s go,”
Sordello said, “down there into the dell
And hear what those shades have to say. I know
To see you walk alive will please them well.”
50 Only three paces downward, I believe,
Brought me below, and I saw one who stared
At me as if, albeit looks deceive,
He might have known me. Now the light so fared
That the air already darkened, yet night’s gain
Was not our loss. What was shut off before
Between his eyes and mine was now made plain.
We stepped towards each other then, and more
Delighted I could not have been. What pain,
Noble Judge Nino, had you, being dead,
60 Been guilty too! But you were here. Between
Us two were no fine greetings left unsaid,
And then he asked: “And how long has it been
Since you sailed on the distant seas that led
To this high mountain road?” “The way I came,”
I said, “was through the sad realm, and it was
This morning, from the first life. All the same,
I hope to gain the second life, because
This leads to that.” Judge Nino, having heard
These thoughts, drew, like Sordello, a step back,
70 As men, bewildered by a sudden word,
Who strive to find the clarity they lack.
One turned to Virgil, and the other turned
To someone seated there, and “Conrad, rise!”
He cried, “Come see what we have learned
God’s grace has willed! Stand up and feast your eyes!”
To me, then: “By those special thanks you owe
To Him who keeps the purpose of his will
So secret no one can completely know
Its nature, there’s a task you should fulfil:
80 When you return across the wide waves, show
Giovanna, my dead daughter, where to plead
My case, for heed is paid to innocence
In Heaven. Her poor mother now, indeed,
No longer brings, I fear, to my defence,
Much love for me. She gave up the white veil
Of widowhood, which she must now regret
In misery. She shows us it must fail,
The force of love, and women will forget
In time, unless the flames by sight and touch
90 Are kept alert. The viper of Milan
Which leads their troops afield won’t do as much
To make so fair a tomb as I began
To do with my device, which was the proud
Cock of Gallura. Were we man to man
As one Visconti to another, bowed
Would that one be, and she would love me yet.”
He spoke like that, and as he did, his face
With that invariable will was set
Which burns first in the heart, and earns its place
100   Through piety. Meanwhile, my greedy glance
Kept going to the sky just where the wheel
Of stars slows, as spokes near the axle dance
A stately measure. Virgil: “Son, why steal
So many looks up there?” I seized the chance
To have my question answered. “What are those
Three torches I see flaming at the pole?”
And he: “These three shine here at the day’s close
Where those four shone this morning, but their role
Is different. Supernatural virtues these
110   Betoken, while the others on the whole
Stand for the best of earthly qualities.”
While Virgil spoke, Sordello reached for him
And held him, saying “Look! Our enemy!”
Pointing a path into the air grown dim.
And where the dell had no wall, we could see
A snake, such as, perhaps, gave Eve the food,
The bitter fruit. Through flowers and grass it slid,
The vile streak, and it had the attitude—
Turning it head as often as it did
120   And licking its own back—of some smug beast
That preens itself. I didn’t see just how—
So can’t say here, though I can hint, at least—
The holy falcons set out, but they now
Both plainly flew across the lesser light.
The serpent heard their green wings cleave the air
And turned and fled back to its nest, the night.
The angels then regained their posts, a pair
Of hunting birds abreast. Meanwhile, the shade
Close to the judge since he was called, did not
130   One single moment shift his gaze. It stayed
On me. “So may it prove that you have got
In your free will enough wax for the fuel
The lantern needs to light you to the peak,
The enamelled summit,” he began, “the rule
Is, if you bring the news with you, then speak
To me of Valdimagra or the land
Nearby, for there I once was very great—
I, Conrad Malaspina. Understand:
Not the old Conrad who built our estate
140   Beside the sea, but nephew to him, and
That loving care I lavished on my kin
Is here refined to proper love, of God.”
“I never came to where your lands begin,”
I said, “The earth you owned I never trod,
But who in Europe knows not the renown
Of you and yours? Your honoured family name
Exalts your lords and holdings with a crown.
Those who were never there revere your fame.
But now you’re here, and I can swear to you—
150   As one who hopes indeed to go above—
Your honoured line, whatever it might do,
Will never throw away the praise and love
Brought by its liberal purse and skilful sword.
Nature and practice will take turns to bring
Such privilege when they’re in close accord,
The guilty head in Rome can’t change a thing.
Although he turn the world awry, your line
Goes straight, alone, and scorns the evil path.”
And he: “True, true. That very thought is mine,
160   And seven years will bring an aftermath.
Scarcely so often will the sun return
To rest in that bed which the Ram bestrides
With all of its four feet, before you learn
Such kind opinions can be nailed inside
Your brain by sharper nails than men can talk,
Driven by power far beyond men’s pride.
Unless God’s wishes can be held in balk,
You will be there to see a sweet release
From agony. My family will make peace.”
In Italy the dawn, once mistress of
Worn-out Tithonus, whitened with its light
The window of the east, and from her love
Drew free. The gems on her sweet brow were bright,
Set in the form of that cold little beast
The scorpion, that stings men with its tail.
And here, the night, in step with that increased
Illumination, set out on its trail
Into the dark. Two climbing steps it made,
10 And almost on the third had closed its wings,
So it was nine at night. In me had stayed
Something of Adam’s human weight, that brings
The need for sleep. Exhausted, I stretched out
Where five of us were seated on the grass,
And there I dreamed, and that dream was about
The hour near morning when the swallows pass
Their time in plaintive song—the memory,
Perhaps, of Philomela’s ancient woe—
And when our minds, from mortal weight set free,
20 And mortal thought, in that state seem to know
The future like the past, so what we see
Looks like a vision of the not yet so.
I seemed to see an eagle gliding high
And poised, with feathers gold, and open wings
To plummet in a moment from the sky.
And I was at the place that Ovid sings—
My Virgil sang it too—where Ganymede,
Lost to his hunting friends, was taken up
By Jove—who took an eagle’s shape and speed—
30 And rode the clouds, with all the gods to sup
And sit in council. For myself, I thought
Perhaps it strikes here only, and disdains
To use its mighty claws for the transport
Of anyone from elsewhere. For my pains
I was rewarded when I saw the bird
First wheel awhile before it fell my way
As frightful as the lightning. In a word,
Upon the instant I became its prey,
And up I went to meet the fire between
40 Earth and the moon, and there, it seemed, we burned
Together, and the flames that I had seen
Only in sleep so scorched me that they turned
Me out of bed, awake as I had been
Before I slept. Just as Achilles sprang
Awake after his mother, as he slept,
Transferred him—and of all this, Statius sang—
From Chiron’s care to Skyros while she kept
Him in her arms, until, from there, the Greeks
Won him away, so I was startled too.
50 Sleep fled, and I felt, in my ice-cold cheeks,
The colour fade, which it is bound to do
In any face that feels fear. There alone
Beside me was my Comfort, and the sun,
Already two hours high, was on its own
Beyond its star companions. Night was done.
My gaze turned to the sea. “Now have no fear,”
My Leader said, “Take heart, for it bodes well
For us. Renew your strength, for you are near
To Purgatory, and there is how you tell:
60 That rampart rings it in. So now we’re here.
And there’s the entrance, where the mound looks split.
Not long ago, at dawn before the day
When your soul, on the flowers by which is lit
The place below, still slept, there came your way
A lady who said ‘I am Lucy. Let
Me take this man that sleeps, so I can speed
Him on his road.’ Sordello lingered yet,
With all the noble souls, and her first deed
Was taking you, and when the daylight shone
70 She took you up. I followed, till she put
You down, here, but her eyes first fixed upon
This opened entrance. Then she turned her foot
And she and sleep together were soon gone.”
As those in doubt, when reassured, may find,
Through truth, that fear is turned to confidence,
So I was changed. My Guide saw how my mind
Was free from care, my face no longer tense.
He climbed the mound. I tagged along behind.
Towards the summit. Reader, you see how
80 I rise to a high theme. Don’t wonder, then,
If I should elevate my manner now
With stronger rhymes and figures from my pen
As intricate as fancy may allow.
We drew near, and came to a point from which,
Where first I thought I saw only a gap
As if a dam were broken by a ditch,
I saw a gate, and that gate was the cap
For three steps leading up to it, each rich
With colour, and a porter, who said naught
90 As yet, and as I stared at him intent
Where he sat on the topmost step, I caught
The full force of his face, the way it sent
More light to me than I could bear the thought
Of feeling further on my eyes. A sword
Was naked in his hand, fit to reflect
The rays on us so I could not afford
One long look, but was driven to collect
The merest glimpses of its untoward
Brilliance. “From where you are, say what you seek,
100   And on whose warrant. See that your long climb
Be not to your harm. Name your sponsor. Speak.
Or do I look as if I’m made of time?”
“A woman from the sky, who is astute
In all these things,” my Master answered, “said
To us just now ‘You must be resolute:
Go that way. It’s the gate. Just go ahead.’ ”
“And may she guide your footsteps on the route
To good,” the courteous warder added. “So,
Come forward to our stairs.” And we approached.
110   The first step was white marble with the glow
Of clarity, and smooth: no blur encroached.
I saw in it the face that best I know.
The second, darkest purple, burnt and rough:
A stone split lengthways and across. The third,
That weighed down from the top, looked near enough
To porphyry, yet flamed and swam and stirred
Like red blood spurting from a vein. On this
God’s angel rested both his feet, then sat
Upon the threshold, which analysis
120   By eye alone said must have been a flat
Wide slice of adamant, without a flaw.
Up these three steps (Step One meant the first stage
Of penitence: contrition. By that law,
Step Two betokened the next shining page,
Confession; and Step Three, a true remorse—
The end point of regret’s hard pilgrimage)
My Leader drew me with the holy force
Of his goodwill. “Now bid him that the bolt
Should be withdrawn, which is his given task:
130   But do it humbly.” Those feet without fault
I threw myself in front of, there to ask
Devoutly that he open up, but first
I smote my breast three times. Then seven Ps
He traced across my brow with that sunburst
He called a sword, while I was on my knees.
“You’re in,” he said. “Try not to think the worst:
These wounds wash off.” Cold ash, or earth dug dry,
Would match his raiment, out of which he drew
Two keys—one gold, one silver—to apply
140   (First one, the white, and then the yellow) to
The door so I could be content. “When one
Of these keys fails to open up the lock,”
He told us both, “the vital thing’s not done:
The passage stays shut, solid as a rock.
One cost more, but the other one demands
More skill and wisdom if it is to move
The lock’s wards, for it’s he who understands
Who solves the knot. Mere doctrine may not prove
Sufficient. They were Peter’s, and he bade
150   Me err through opening, not keeping closed—
So long as longing souls continue glad
To throw themselves, the way that they’re supposed
To do, at my feet.” Then he pushed the door
Of the hallowed gateway open. “Enter. But
You have to look,” he said, “always before—
Look back and you will find the door swung shut,
With you outside again.” Each single hinge
Belonging to that heaving, booming mass
Of metal door creaked fit to bring a cringe
160   Of shame to Rome’s great rock that cried “Alas!”
The Tarpeian, that treasure house, roared less,
Nor showed itself more stubborn when the good
Metellus lost it by the ruthlessness
Of Caesar, and its groaning gate withstood
A legion, then gave way to the excess
Of force, and then that strong box was laid bare.
But this held treasure of a different kind.
“Te deum.” The sweet notes hung in the air.
“Te deum laudamus.” They touched my mind,
170   Those voices, and perhaps they started there.
I heard the same thing that we sometimes find
When human song and organ sound are joined,
And now the words are blurred, and now new-coined.