The Beginning Of The End

Chapter 10 of The Undivine Comedy begins with two epigraphs. One is a very witty definition and performance of the rhetorical trope of enjambment, written by the poet John Hollander:

An end-stopped line is one—as you'll have guessed—
 Whose syntax comes, just at its end, to rest.
 But when the walking sentence needs to keep
 On going, the enjambment makes a leap
 Across a line-end (here, a rhyming close).
 (John Hollander, Rhyme’s Reason)

The other is the even more witty passage from the end of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the great novelist writes that:

my readers . . . will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.

Chapter 10 of The Undivine Comedy attempts to apply Austen’s insight regarding the material and mechanical dimensions of writing, in this case of ending, to a text that has persuaded generations of readers that it does not participate in mere textual strategies and that it does not have to find methods for dealing with the laws of time and narrative. But, of course, it does, and “the tell-tale compression of the pages before [us]” provided at least as much of a challenge for Dante as it did for Austen. The stakes involved for Dante are higher, given that his task is to describe the perfect felicity of beatific vision rather than the perfect felicity of romantic love.

There is much to learn, however, from Austen’s astringent comment: Dante, like Austen, was wrestling with the problems of a severely over-determined text, in which the reader knows perfectly well that “we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”. Consider the difficulty of ending a very long poem whose ending in “perfect felicity” is completely discounted and expected!

Dante evolved brilliant methods—rhetorical methods, because he is a writer, like Jane Austen—to deal with the problem of ending his severely over-determined text.

We have discussed, for instance, the Paradiso’s great ontological metaphors, which offer Dante some traction in the ongoing problem of portraying unity. Similarly, Dante develops techniques for ending the Commedia. In considering how Dante approaches the problem of ending, we will look at his reliance on the technique of the “jumping” text, a category that includes enjambment. Hence the title of Chapter 10, “The Sacred Poem is Forced to Jump”: indeed, the text “jumps” more and more as it approaches the end.

***

Where shall we posit the beginning of the end of the Commedia? I write as follows in The Undivine Comedy:

Although theoretically the beginning of the end of the poem could be located at any point along the diegetic line, including the first verse, we will begin our study of the end’s beginning rather further along, in the heaven of Saturn. (p. 221)

There are significant narrative “firsts” in the heaven of Saturn that make it a convenient point at which to begin a discussion of the beginning of the end of the Commedia.

At the beginning of Paradiso 21 Beatrice does not smile, for her smile would consume Dante. By the same token, it turns out that in this sphere “la dolce sinfonia di paradiso” (the sweet symphony of paradise [59]) has fallen silent.

Thus the pilgrim’s rising up to the “settimo splendore” (seventh splendor [13]) is marked in a new way: the absent smile and silenced symphony make this transition unlike the previous transitions.

Dante sees a golden staircase leading up out of his sight. The shape of a ladder is also different from the self-enclosed figures we have encountered previously: the circles of the heaven of the sun, the cross of the heaven of Mars, the eagle of the heaven of Jupiter. The ladder leads somewhere; it goes to some place that is beyond the pilgrim’s field of vision, out of his sight, thus indicating a path toward a telos in a way that is not implicit in the previous heavenly figurations.

In this way too the ladder is a clear marker of the beginning of the end, the end being that which we cannot see but to which this ladder leads. Up and down this ladder move the souls of the contemplatives who belong to the heaven of Saturn, and one of these souls approaches Dante.

Dante asks the soul two questions. The questions seem straightforward and not at all problematic, but the first, especially, will be cause for alarm.

  1. Why is it that this soul, this particular soul out of all the souls in Saturn, has chosen to draw near to Dante: “la cagion che sì presso mi t’ha posta” (literally: the reason that placed you so near to me [Par. 21.57])?
  2. What has caused the cessation of the music of paradise, not a previous occurrence, given that the music “giù per l’altre [rote] suona sì divota” (sounds devotedly through the other spheres [Par. 21.60]).

The soul, not yet identified, explains that it does not draw near to Dante out of particular affect, for he feels no greater love for Dante than is felt by any other soul in this heaven:

né più amor mi fece esser più presta;
ché più e tanto amor quinci sù ferve,
sì come il fiammeggiar ti manifesta.  	(Par. 21.67-69)
The love that prompted me is not supreme;
above, is love that equals or exceeds 
my own, as spirit-flames will let you see.

Verse 67, “né più amor mi fece esser più presta” (literally: nor did more love make me more eager), gives the measure of how far this heaven is from the affectively laden and deeply personal heaven of Mars, where Cacciaguida, full of “ardente affetto” (Par. 15.43), approached the pilgrim precisely because he did feel “più amor” (Par. 21.67) for him. Nor does Cacciaguida dissemble as to why he feels “più amor” for this particular visitor to heaven: he belongs to the same bloodline and awakens in Cacciaguida deep affective bonds as his kin and descendant.

In sharp contrast, the soul who greets Dante here in Saturn swats away the possibility of affect.

Dante then reformulates his question in a manner that is less personal, hoping to make amends for any unintended effrontery. But he makes matters worse, for the reformulation is theologically loaded in a manner that will be labeled presumptuous.

Why, the pilgrim asks, was this soul alone and specifically predestined to approach him? Noting the word “predestinata” (Par. 21.77), and remembering the apostrophe to unfathomable divine predestination at the end of the previous canto, we sense that the pilgrim is on shaky ground:

ma questo è quel ch’a cerner mi par forte, 
perché predestinata fosti sola 
a questo officio tra le tue consorte.	 (Par. 21.76-78)
but this seems difficult for me to grasp:
why you alone, of those who form these ranks, 
were he who was predestined to this task.

We had just learned at the end of Paradiso 20 that divine predestination cannot be plumbed by human intellect:

O predestinazion, quanto remota
è la radice tua da quelli aspetti
che la prima cagion non veggion tota!   (Par. 20.130-32)
How distant, o predestination, is
your root from those whose vision does not see
the Primal Cause in Its entirety!

In light of the above, it is not surprising that the question put by the pilgrim, as to why this soul alone was predestined to approach him, is completely off limits. As the soul, who will turn out to be the monastic contemplative Saint Peter Damian, explains: not even the highest of the seraphim would be able to satisfy Dante’s desire on this score.

Ma quell’alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
quel serafin che ’n Dio più l’occhio ha fisso,
a la dimanda tua non satisfara, 
però che sì s’innoltra ne lo abisso
de l’etterno statuto quel che chiedi, 
che da ogne creata vista è scisso.   	(Par. 21.91-96)
But even Heaven’s most enlightened soul,
that Seraph with his eye most set on God,
could not provide the why, not satisfy
what you have asked; for deep in the abyss 
of the Eternal Ordinance, it is 
cut off from all created beings’ vision.

The rhyme abisso/scisso (in bold above) has been used before, in a context that is also about testing the limits of how far humans can go in challenging the divine will and in trying to see into the “abyss” of divine predestination. Dante used the same rhyme in his desperate apostrophe to God (“Jove”) of Purgatorio 6, in which he dares to wonder whether God’s just eyes are turned away from the tragedies unfolding in Italy:

E se licito m’è, o sommo Giove
che fosti in terra per noi crucifisso, 
son li giusti occhi tuoi rivolti altrove? 
O è preparazion che ne l’abisso
del tuo consiglio fai per alcun bene
in tutto de l’accorger nostro scisso?	 (Purg. 6.118-23)
And if I am allowed, o highest Jove,
to ask: You who on earth were crucified 
for us—have You turned elsewhere Your just eyes? 
Or are You, in Your judgment’s depth, devising
a good that we cannot foresee, completely
dissevered from our way of understanding?

Now Saint Peter Damian explicitly instructs the pilgrim to take back to the mortal world the message that no one should presume to trespass as he just did:

E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi,
questo rapporta, sì che non presumma
a tanto segno più mover li piedi.  	(Par. 21.97-99)
And to the mortal world, when you return,
tell this, lest men continue to trespass 
and set their steps toward such a reachless goal.

Thus the poet makes a “social encounter” between the pilgrim and a soul in the heaven of Saturn into an opportunity to use the Ulyssean lexicon of trespass (“sì che non presumma / a tanto segno più mover li piedi”) and to indict human “presumption”!

The soul’s words are so prescriptive, they “prescribe” the pilgrim’s line of inquiry to such a degree, that Dante now retreats humbly to the question of simple identity:

Sì mi prescrisser le parole sue,
ch’io lasciai la quistione e mi ritrassi
a dimandarla umilmente chi fue.  	(Par. 21.103-05)
His words so curbed my query that I left
behind my questioning; and I drew back
and humbly asked that spirit who he was.

The question “chi fue”—who was he—is acceptable, and the remainder of Paradiso 21 is devoted to the introduction of the reforming Italian saint, Peter Damian.

Peter Damian now tells his story, expressing in the first person motifs that we associate with the heroic biographies of Francis and Dominic from the heaven of the sun (where however they were narrated by someone other than the protagonist of the story).

As in the discussions of the Franciscans and the Dominicans in Paradiso 11 and Paradiso 12, here in Paradiso 21 Saint Peter Damian engages the history of monasticism, moving from his life-story into the condemnation of the corruption that now infects his own order.

Coordinated Reading

Coordinated Reading: for the heaven of Saturn, see The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 10, “The Sacred Poem Is Forced to Jump: Closure and the Poetics of Enjambment,” pp. 222-23.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 21: The Beginning Of The End.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-21/

About the Commento

1Già eran li occhi miei rifissi al volto
2de la mia donna, e l’animo con essi,
3e da ogne altro intento s’era tolto.

4E quella non ridea; ma «S’io ridessi»,
5mi cominciò, «tu ti faresti quale
6fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

7ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
8de l’etterno palazzo più s’accende,
9com’ hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

10se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
11che ’l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
12sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende.

13Noi sem levati al settimo splendore,
14che sotto ’l petto del Leone ardente
15raggia mo misto giù del suo valore.

16Ficca di retro a li occhi tuoi la mente,
17e fa di quelli specchi a la figura
18che ’n questo specchio ti sarà parvente».

19Qual savesse qual era la pastura
20del viso mio ne l’aspetto beato
21quand’ io mi trasmutai ad altra cura,

22conoscerebbe quanto m’era a grato
23ubidire a la mia celeste scorta,
24contrapesando l’un con l’altro lato.

25Dentro al cristallo che ’l vocabol porta,
26cerchiando il mondo, del suo caro duce
27sotto cui giacque ogne malizia morta,

28di color d’oro in che raggio traluce
29vid’ io uno scaleo eretto in suso
30tanto, che nol seguiva la mia luce.

31Vidi anche per li gradi scender giuso
32tanti splendor, ch’io pensai ch’ogne lume
33che par nel ciel, quindi fosse diffuso.

34E come, per lo natural costume,
35le pole insieme, al cominciar del giorno,
36si movono a scaldar le fredde piume;

37poi altre vanno via sanza ritorno,
38altre rivolgon sé onde son mosse,
39e altre roteando fan soggiorno;

40tal modo parve me che quivi fosse
41in quello sfavillar che ’nsieme venne,
42sì come in certo grado si percosse.

43E quel che presso più ci si ritenne,
44si fé sì chiaro, ch’io dicea pensando:
45‘Io veggio ben l’amor che tu m’accenne.

46Ma quella ond’ io aspetto il come e ’l quando
47del dire e del tacer, si sta; ond’ io,
48contra ’l disio, fo ben ch’io non dimando’.

49Per ch’ella, che vedëa il tacer mio
50nel veder di colui che tutto vede,
51mi disse: «Solvi il tuo caldo disio».

52E io incominciai: «La mia mercede
53non mi fa degno de la tua risposta;
54ma per colei che ’l chieder mi concede,

55vita beata che ti stai nascosta
56dentro a la tua letizia, fammi nota
57la cagion che sì presso mi t’ha posta;

58e dì perché si tace in questa rota
59la dolce sinfonia di paradiso,
60che giù per l’altre suona sì divota».

61«Tu hai l’udir mortal sì come il viso»,
62rispuose a me; «onde qui non si canta
63per quel che Bëatrice non ha riso.

64Giù per li gradi de la scala santa
65discesi tanto sol per farti festa
66col dire e con la luce che mi ammanta;

67né più amor mi fece esser più presta,
68ché più e tanto amor quinci sù ferve,
69sì come il fiammeggiar ti manifesta.

70Ma l’alta carità, che ci fa serve
71pronte al consiglio che ’l mondo governa,
72sorteggia qui sì come tu osserve».

73«Io veggio ben», diss’ io, «sacra lucerna,
74come libero amore in questa corte
75basta a seguir la provedenza etterna;

76ma questo è quel ch’a cerner mi par forte,
77perché predestinata fosti sola
78a questo officio tra le tue consorte».

79Né venni prima a l’ultima parola,
80che del suo mezzo fece il lume centro,
81girando sé come veloce mola;

82poi rispuose l’amor che v’era dentro:
83«Luce divina sopra me s’appunta,
84penetrando per questa in ch’io m’inventro,

85la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
86mi leva sopra me tanto, ch’i’ veggio
87la somma essenza de la quale è munta.

88Quinci vien l’allegrezza ond’ io fiammeggio;
89per ch’a la vista mia, quant’ ella è chiara,
90la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio.

91Ma quell’ alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
92quel serafin che ’n Dio più l’occhio ha fisso,
93a la dimanda tua non satisfara,

94però che sì s’innoltra ne lo abisso
95de l’etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
96che da ogne creata vista è scisso.

97E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi,
98questo rapporta, sì che non presumma
99a tanto segno più mover li piedi.

100La mente, che qui luce, in terra fumma;
101onde riguarda come può là giùe
102quel che non pote perché ’l ciel l’assumma».

103Sì mi prescrisser le parole sue,
104ch’io lasciai la quistione e mi ritrassi
105a dimandarla umilmente chi fue.

106«Tra ’ due liti d’Italia surgon sassi,
107e non molto distanti a la tua patria,
108tanto che ’ troni assai suonan più bassi,

109e fanno un gibbo che si chiama Catria,
110di sotto al quale è consecrato un ermo,
111che suole esser disposto a sola latria».

112Così ricominciommi il terzo sermo;
113e poi, continüando, disse: «Quivi
114al servigio di Dio mi fe’ sì fermo,

115che pur con cibi di liquor d’ulivi
116lievemente passava caldi e geli,
117contento ne’ pensier contemplativi.

118Render solea quel chiostro a questi cieli
119fertilemente; e ora è fatto vano,
120sì che tosto convien che si riveli.

121In quel loco fu’ io Pietro Damiano,
122e Pietro Peccator fu’ ne la casa
123di Nostra Donna in sul lito adriano.

124Poca vita mortal m’era rimasa,
125quando fui chiesto e tratto a quel cappello,
126che pur di male in peggio si travasa.

127Venne Cefàs e venne il gran vasello
128de lo Spirito Santo, magri e scalzi,
129prendendo il cibo da qualunque ostello.

130Or voglion quinci e quindi chi rincalzi
131li moderni pastori e chi li meni,
132tanto son gravi, e chi di rietro li alzi.

133Cuopron d’i manti loro i palafreni,
134sì che due bestie van sott’ una pelle:
135oh pazïenza che tanto sostieni!».

136A questa voce vid’ io più fiammelle
137di grado in grado scendere e girarsi,
138e ogne giro le facea più belle.

139Dintorno a questa vennero e fermarsi,
140e fero un grido di sì alto suono,
141che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;

142né io lo ’ntesi, sì mi vinse il tuono.

By now my eyes were set again upon my
lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.

She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,

because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—

were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would seem a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

We now are in the seventh splendor; this,
beneath the burning Lion’s breast, transmits
to earth its rays, with which his force is mixed.

Let your mind follow where your eyes have led,
and let your eyes be mirrors for the figure
that will appear to you within this mirror.”

That man who knows just how my vision pastured
upon her blessed face, might recognize
the joy I found when my celestial guide

had asked of me to turn my mind aside,
were he to weigh my joy when I obeyed
against my joy in contemplating her.

Within the crystal that—as it revolves
around the earth—bears as its name the name
of that dear king whose rule undid all evil,

I saw a ladder rising up so high
that it could not be followed by my sight:
its color, gold when gold is struck by sunlight.

I also saw so many flames descend
those steps that I thought every light displayed
in heaven had been poured out from that place.

And just as jackdaws, at the break of day,
together rise—such is their nature’s way—
to warm their feathers chilled by night; then some

fly off and never do return, and some
wheel back to that point where they started from,
while others, though they wheel, remain at home;

such were the ways I saw those splendors take
as soon as they had struck a certain step,
where they had thronged as one in radiance.

The flame that halted nearest us became
so bright that in my mind I said: “I see
you clearly signaling to me your love.

But she from whom I wait for word on how
and when to speak and to be silent, pauses;
thus, though I would, I do well not to ask.”

And she who, seeing Him who sees all things,
had seen the reason for my silence, said
to me: “Do satisfy your burning longing.”

And I began: “My merit does not make
me worthy of reply, but for the sake
of her who gives me leave to question you—

a blessed living soul—who hide within
your joy, do let me know the reason why
you drew so near to me. And tell me, too,

why the sweet symphony of Paradise
is silent in this heaven, while, below,
it sounds devoutly through the other spheres.”

“Your hearing is as mortal as your sight;
thus, here there is no singing,” he replied,
“and Beatrice, in like wise, did not smile.

When, down the sacred staircase, I descended,
I only came to welcome you with gladness—
with words and with the light that mantles me.

The love that prompted me is not supreme;
above, is love that equals or exceeds
my own, as spirit—flames will let you see.

But the deep charity, which makes us keen
to serve the Providence that rules the world,
allots our actions here, as you perceive.”

“O holy lamp,” I said, “I do indeed
see how, within this court, it is your free
love that fulfills eternal Providence;

but this seems difficult for me to grasp:
why you alone, of those who form these ranks,
were he who was predestined to this task.”

And I had yet to reach the final word
when that light made a pivot of its midpoint
and spun around as would a swift millstone.

Then, from within its light, that love replied:
“Light from the Deity descends on me;
it penetrates the light that enwombs me;

its power, as it joins my power of sight,
lifts me so far beyond myself that I
see the High Source from which that light derives.

From this there comes the joy with which I am
aflame; I match the clearness of my light
with equal measure of my clear insight.

But even Heaven’s most enlightened soul,
that Seraph with his eye most set on God,
could not provide the why, not satisfy

what you have asked; for deep in the abyss
of the Eternal Ordinance, it is
cut off from all created beings’ vision.

And to the mortal world, when you return,
tell this, lest men continue to trespass
and set their steps toward such a reachless goal.

The mind, bright here, on earth is dulled and smoky.
Think: how, below, can mind see that which hides
even when mind is raised to Heaven’s height?”

His words so curbed my query that I left
behind my questioning; and I drew back
and humbly asked that spirit who he was.

“Not far from your homeland, between two shores
of Italy, the stony ridges rise
so high that, far below them, thunder roars.

These ridges form a hump called Catria;
a consecrated hermitage beneath
that peak was once devoted just to worship.”

So his third speech to me began; then he
continued: “There, within that monastery,
in serving God, I gained tenacity:

with food that only olive juice had seasoned,
I could sustain with ease both heat and frost,
content within my contemplative thoughts.

That cloister used to offer souls to Heaven,
a fertile harvest, but it now is barren—
as Heaven’s punishment will soon make plain.

There I was known as Peter Damian
and, on the Adriatic shore, was Peter
the Sinner when I served Our Lady’s House.

Not much of mortal life was left to me
when I was sought for, dragged to take that hat
which always passes down from bad to worse.

Once there were Cephas and the Holy Ghost’s
great vessel: they were barefoot, they were lean,
they took their food at any inn they found.

But now the modern pastors are so plump
that they have need of one to prop them up
on this side, one on that, and one in front,

and one to hoist them saddleward. Their cloaks
cover their steeds, two beasts beneath one skin:
o patience, you who must endure so much!”

These words, I saw, had summoned many flames,
descending step by step; I saw them wheel
and, at each turn, become more beautiful.

They joined around him, and they stopped, and raised
a cry so deep that nothing here can be
its likeness; but the words they cried I could

not understand—their thunder overcame me.

ALREADY on my Lady’s face mine eyes
Again were fastened, and with these my mind,
And from all other purpose was withdrawn;

And she smiled not; bu t”If I were to smile,”
She unto me began, “thou wouldst become
Like Semele, when she was turned to ashes.

Because my beauty, that along the stairs
Of the eternal palace more enkindles,
As thou hast seen, the farther we ascend,

If it were tempered not, is so resplendent
That all thy mortal power in its effulgence
Would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes.

We are uplifted to the seventh splendour,
That underneath the burning Lion’s breast
Now radiates downward mingled with his power.

Fix in direction of thine eyes the mind,
And make of them a mirror for the figure
That in this mirror shall appear to thee.”

He who could know what was the pasturage
My sight had in that blessed countenance,
When I transferred me to another care,

Would recognize how grateful was to me
Obedience unto my celestial escort,
By counterpoising one side with the other.

Within the crystal which, around the world
Revolving, bears the name of its dear leader,
Under whom every wickedness lay dead,

Coloured like gold, on which the sunshine gleams,
A stairway I beheld to such a height
Uplifted, that mine eye pursued it not.

Likewise beheld I down the steps descending
So many splendours, that I thought each light
That in the heaven appears was there diffused.

And as accordant with their natural custom
The rooks together at the break of day
Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;

Then some of them fly off without return,
Others come back to where they started from,
And others, wheeling round, still keep at home;

Such fashion it appeared to me was there
Within the sparkling that together came,
As soon as on a certain step it struck,

And that which nearest unto us remained
Became so clear, that in my thought I said,
“Well I perceive the love thou showest me;

But she, from whom I wait the how and when
Of speech and silence, standeth still; whence I
Against desire do well if I ask not.”

She thereupon, who saw my silentness
In the sight of Him who seeth everything,
Said unto me, “Let loose thy warm desire.”

And I began: “No merit of my own
Renders me worthy of response from thee;
But for her sake who granteth me the asking,

Thou blessed life that dost remain concealed
In thy beatitude, make known to me
The cause which draweth thee so near my side;

And tell me why is silent in this wheel
The dulcet symphony of Paradise,
That through the rest below sounds so devoutly.”

“Thou hast thy hearing mortal as thy sight,”
It answer made to me;”they sing not here,
For the same cause that Beatrice has not smiled.

Thus far adown the holy stairway’s steps
Have I descended but to give thee welcome
With words, and with the light that mantles me;

Nor did more love cause me to be more ready,
For love as much and more up there is burning,
As doth the flaming manifest to thee.

But the high charity, that makes us servants
Prompt to the counsel which controls the world,
Allotteth here, even as thou dost observe.”

“I see full well,” said I, “O sacred lamp!
How love unfettered in this court sufficeth
To follow the eternal Providence;

But this is what seems hard for me to see,
Wherefore predestinate wast thou alone
Unto this office from among thy consorts.”

No sooner had I come to the last word,
Than of its middle made the light a centre,
Whirling itself about like a swift millstone.

When answer made the love that was therein:
“On me directed is a light divine,
Piercing through this in which I am embosomed,

Of which the virtue with my sight conjoined
Lifts me above myself so far, I see
The supreme essence from which this is drawn.

Hence comes the joyfulness with which I flame,
For to my sight, as far as it is clear,
The clearness of the flame I equal make.

But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;

Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off.

And to the mortal world, when thou returnest,
This carry back, that it may not presume
Longer tow’rd such a goal to move its feet.

The mind, that shineth here, on earth doth smoke;
From this observe how can it do below
That which it cannot though the heaven assume it ?”

Such limit did its words prescribe to me,
The question I relinquished, and restricted
Myself to ask it humbly who it was.

“Between two shores of Italy rise cliffs,
And not far distant from thy native place,
So high, the thunders far below them sound,

And form a ridge that Catria is called,
‘Neath which is consecrate a hermitage
Wont to be dedicate to worship only.”

Thus unto me the third speech recommenced,
And then, continuing, it said: “Therein
Unto God’s service I became so steadfast,

That feeding only on the juice of olives
Lightly I passed away the heats and frosts,
Contented in my thoughts contemplative.

That cloister used to render to these heavens
Abundantly, and now is empty grown,
So that perforce it soon must be revealed.

I in that place was Peter Damiano;
And Peter the Sinner was I in the house
Of Our Lady on the Adriatic shore.

Little of mortal life remained to me,
When I was called and dragged forth to the hat
Which shifteth evermore from bad to worse.

Came Cephas, and the mighty Vessel came
Of the Holy Spirit, meagre and barefooted,
Taking the food of any hostelry.

Now some one to support them on each side
The modern shepherds need, and some to lead them,
So heavy are they, and to hold their trains.

They cover up their palfreys with their cloaks,
So that two beasts go underneath one skin;
O Patience, that dost tolerate so much!”

At this voice saw I many little flames
From step to step descending and revolving,
And every revolution made them fairer.

Round about this one came they and stood still,
And a cry uttered of so loud a sound,
It here could find no parallel, nor I

Distinguished it, the thunder so o’ercame me.

By now my eyes were set again upon my
lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.

She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,

because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—

were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would seem a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

We now are in the seventh splendor; this,
beneath the burning Lion’s breast, transmits
to earth its rays, with which his force is mixed.

Let your mind follow where your eyes have led,
and let your eyes be mirrors for the figure
that will appear to you within this mirror.”

That man who knows just how my vision pastured
upon her blessed face, might recognize
the joy I found when my celestial guide

had asked of me to turn my mind aside,
were he to weigh my joy when I obeyed
against my joy in contemplating her.

Within the crystal that—as it revolves
around the earth—bears as its name the name
of that dear king whose rule undid all evil,

I saw a ladder rising up so high
that it could not be followed by my sight:
its color, gold when gold is struck by sunlight.

I also saw so many flames descend
those steps that I thought every light displayed
in heaven had been poured out from that place.

And just as jackdaws, at the break of day,
together rise—such is their nature’s way—
to warm their feathers chilled by night; then some

fly off and never do return, and some
wheel back to that point where they started from,
while others, though they wheel, remain at home;

such were the ways I saw those splendors take
as soon as they had struck a certain step,
where they had thronged as one in radiance.

The flame that halted nearest us became
so bright that in my mind I said: “I see
you clearly signaling to me your love.

But she from whom I wait for word on how
and when to speak and to be silent, pauses;
thus, though I would, I do well not to ask.”

And she who, seeing Him who sees all things,
had seen the reason for my silence, said
to me: “Do satisfy your burning longing.”

And I began: “My merit does not make
me worthy of reply, but for the sake
of her who gives me leave to question you—

a blessed living soul—who hide within
your joy, do let me know the reason why
you drew so near to me. And tell me, too,

why the sweet symphony of Paradise
is silent in this heaven, while, below,
it sounds devoutly through the other spheres.”

“Your hearing is as mortal as your sight;
thus, here there is no singing,” he replied,
“and Beatrice, in like wise, did not smile.

When, down the sacred staircase, I descended,
I only came to welcome you with gladness—
with words and with the light that mantles me.

The love that prompted me is not supreme;
above, is love that equals or exceeds
my own, as spirit—flames will let you see.

But the deep charity, which makes us keen
to serve the Providence that rules the world,
allots our actions here, as you perceive.”

“O holy lamp,” I said, “I do indeed
see how, within this court, it is your free
love that fulfills eternal Providence;

but this seems difficult for me to grasp:
why you alone, of those who form these ranks,
were he who was predestined to this task.”

And I had yet to reach the final word
when that light made a pivot of its midpoint
and spun around as would a swift millstone.

Then, from within its light, that love replied:
“Light from the Deity descends on me;
it penetrates the light that enwombs me;

its power, as it joins my power of sight,
lifts me so far beyond myself that I
see the High Source from which that light derives.

From this there comes the joy with which I am
aflame; I match the clearness of my light
with equal measure of my clear insight.

But even Heaven’s most enlightened soul,
that Seraph with his eye most set on God,
could not provide the why, not satisfy

what you have asked; for deep in the abyss
of the Eternal Ordinance, it is
cut off from all created beings’ vision.

And to the mortal world, when you return,
tell this, lest men continue to trespass
and set their steps toward such a reachless goal.

The mind, bright here, on earth is dulled and smoky.
Think: how, below, can mind see that which hides
even when mind is raised to Heaven’s height?”

His words so curbed my query that I left
behind my questioning; and I drew back
and humbly asked that spirit who he was.

“Not far from your homeland, between two shores
of Italy, the stony ridges rise
so high that, far below them, thunder roars.

These ridges form a hump called Catria;
a consecrated hermitage beneath
that peak was once devoted just to worship.”

So his third speech to me began; then he
continued: “There, within that monastery,
in serving God, I gained tenacity:

with food that only olive juice had seasoned,
I could sustain with ease both heat and frost,
content within my contemplative thoughts.

That cloister used to offer souls to Heaven,
a fertile harvest, but it now is barren—
as Heaven’s punishment will soon make plain.

There I was known as Peter Damian
and, on the Adriatic shore, was Peter
the Sinner when I served Our Lady’s House.

Not much of mortal life was left to me
when I was sought for, dragged to take that hat
which always passes down from bad to worse.

Once there were Cephas and the Holy Ghost’s
great vessel: they were barefoot, they were lean,
they took their food at any inn they found.

But now the modern pastors are so plump
that they have need of one to prop them up
on this side, one on that, and one in front,

and one to hoist them saddleward. Their cloaks
cover their steeds, two beasts beneath one skin:
o patience, you who must endure so much!”

These words, I saw, had summoned many flames,
descending step by step; I saw them wheel
and, at each turn, become more beautiful.

They joined around him, and they stopped, and raised
a cry so deep that nothing here can be
its likeness; but the words they cried I could

not understand—their thunder overcame me.

ALREADY on my Lady’s face mine eyes
Again were fastened, and with these my mind,
And from all other purpose was withdrawn;

And she smiled not; bu t”If I were to smile,”
She unto me began, “thou wouldst become
Like Semele, when she was turned to ashes.

Because my beauty, that along the stairs
Of the eternal palace more enkindles,
As thou hast seen, the farther we ascend,

If it were tempered not, is so resplendent
That all thy mortal power in its effulgence
Would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes.

We are uplifted to the seventh splendour,
That underneath the burning Lion’s breast
Now radiates downward mingled with his power.

Fix in direction of thine eyes the mind,
And make of them a mirror for the figure
That in this mirror shall appear to thee.”

He who could know what was the pasturage
My sight had in that blessed countenance,
When I transferred me to another care,

Would recognize how grateful was to me
Obedience unto my celestial escort,
By counterpoising one side with the other.

Within the crystal which, around the world
Revolving, bears the name of its dear leader,
Under whom every wickedness lay dead,

Coloured like gold, on which the sunshine gleams,
A stairway I beheld to such a height
Uplifted, that mine eye pursued it not.

Likewise beheld I down the steps descending
So many splendours, that I thought each light
That in the heaven appears was there diffused.

And as accordant with their natural custom
The rooks together at the break of day
Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;

Then some of them fly off without return,
Others come back to where they started from,
And others, wheeling round, still keep at home;

Such fashion it appeared to me was there
Within the sparkling that together came,
As soon as on a certain step it struck,

And that which nearest unto us remained
Became so clear, that in my thought I said,
“Well I perceive the love thou showest me;

But she, from whom I wait the how and when
Of speech and silence, standeth still; whence I
Against desire do well if I ask not.”

She thereupon, who saw my silentness
In the sight of Him who seeth everything,
Said unto me, “Let loose thy warm desire.”

And I began: “No merit of my own
Renders me worthy of response from thee;
But for her sake who granteth me the asking,

Thou blessed life that dost remain concealed
In thy beatitude, make known to me
The cause which draweth thee so near my side;

And tell me why is silent in this wheel
The dulcet symphony of Paradise,
That through the rest below sounds so devoutly.”

“Thou hast thy hearing mortal as thy sight,”
It answer made to me;”they sing not here,
For the same cause that Beatrice has not smiled.

Thus far adown the holy stairway’s steps
Have I descended but to give thee welcome
With words, and with the light that mantles me;

Nor did more love cause me to be more ready,
For love as much and more up there is burning,
As doth the flaming manifest to thee.

But the high charity, that makes us servants
Prompt to the counsel which controls the world,
Allotteth here, even as thou dost observe.”

“I see full well,” said I, “O sacred lamp!
How love unfettered in this court sufficeth
To follow the eternal Providence;

But this is what seems hard for me to see,
Wherefore predestinate wast thou alone
Unto this office from among thy consorts.”

No sooner had I come to the last word,
Than of its middle made the light a centre,
Whirling itself about like a swift millstone.

When answer made the love that was therein:
“On me directed is a light divine,
Piercing through this in which I am embosomed,

Of which the virtue with my sight conjoined
Lifts me above myself so far, I see
The supreme essence from which this is drawn.

Hence comes the joyfulness with which I flame,
For to my sight, as far as it is clear,
The clearness of the flame I equal make.

But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;

Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off.

And to the mortal world, when thou returnest,
This carry back, that it may not presume
Longer tow’rd such a goal to move its feet.

The mind, that shineth here, on earth doth smoke;
From this observe how can it do below
That which it cannot though the heaven assume it ?”

Such limit did its words prescribe to me,
The question I relinquished, and restricted
Myself to ask it humbly who it was.

“Between two shores of Italy rise cliffs,
And not far distant from thy native place,
So high, the thunders far below them sound,

And form a ridge that Catria is called,
‘Neath which is consecrate a hermitage
Wont to be dedicate to worship only.”

Thus unto me the third speech recommenced,
And then, continuing, it said: “Therein
Unto God’s service I became so steadfast,

That feeding only on the juice of olives
Lightly I passed away the heats and frosts,
Contented in my thoughts contemplative.

That cloister used to render to these heavens
Abundantly, and now is empty grown,
So that perforce it soon must be revealed.

I in that place was Peter Damiano;
And Peter the Sinner was I in the house
Of Our Lady on the Adriatic shore.

Little of mortal life remained to me,
When I was called and dragged forth to the hat
Which shifteth evermore from bad to worse.

Came Cephas, and the mighty Vessel came
Of the Holy Spirit, meagre and barefooted,
Taking the food of any hostelry.

Now some one to support them on each side
The modern shepherds need, and some to lead them,
So heavy are they, and to hold their trains.

They cover up their palfreys with their cloaks,
So that two beasts go underneath one skin;
O Patience, that dost tolerate so much!”

At this voice saw I many little flames
From step to step descending and revolving,
And every revolution made them fairer.

Round about this one came they and stood still,
And a cry uttered of so loud a sound,
It here could find no parallel, nor I

Distinguished it, the thunder so o’ercame me.