Paradiso 23 is a mystical canto. It does not engage in “plot” even in the minimal sense of plot in the Paradiso: there is no encounter with a soul or a dubbio that generates a lengthy discourse on a monastic order or on the papal curia, on good governance or social justice, on Florence or new wealth, on heredity, on the order of the universe, on human obligation and will, or on any of the manifold other topics that Dante has put before us.
There is, rather, an attempt to communicate the substance of the divine, as perceived and experienced in an immediate — in its etymological sense of un-mediated — encounter with the divine. This encounter is such that it provokes in Dante an ecstasis menti, literally an ec-stasis, a “standing outside of the mind”: an ecstasy, a raptus, in which “la mente mia . . . fatta più grande, di se stessa uscìo” (my mind, having grown more expansive, went outside of itself [Par. 23.43-44]).
In this canto the pilgrim experiences visions: a vision of the Advent of Christ, a vision of Christ Himself, who appears as a sun and as a man, and a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation, all interwoven with sublime similes, invocations and prayers to the Transcendent Principle, and claims of poetic insufficiency.
To the degree that there is “plot” in Paradiso 23, it is provided by the visions, which occur in this order: the pilgrim experiences visions of the Advent of Christ, the Ascension of Christ, the Annunciation to the Virgin, and the Assumption of the Virgin. These visions are themselves dechronologized, given that in history the Annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy precedes the Advent of Christ’s birth.
Christ appears in His triumph, surrounded by all the souls whom He has redeemed:
e Beatrice disse: «Ecco le schiere del triunfo di Cristo e tutto ’l frutto ricolto del girar di queste spere!» (Par. 23.19-21)
And Beatrice said: “There you see the troops of the triumphant Christ—and all the fruits ingathered from the turning of these spheres!”
The pilgrim sees a sun that lights one thousand lamps (“un sol che tutte quante l’accendea” ), and within that living light he sees its “glowing substance” (“la lucente sustanza” ) so bright that that his gaze cannot sustain it:
vid’i’ sopra migliaia di lucerne un sol che tutte quante l’accendea, come fa ’l nostro le viste superne; e per la viva luce trasparea la lucente sustanza tanto chiara nel viso mio, che non la sostenea. (Par. 23.28-33)
I saw a sun above a thousand lamps; it kindled all of them as does our sun kindle the sights above us here on earth; and through its living light the glowing Substance appeared to me with such intensity— my vision lacked the power to sustain it.
The “lucente sustanza” that Dante sees is Christ in His self: His substance is His essence is His ontological being and presence. Because he is looking at the Christ, the pilgrim does not have the power to sustain his gaze. Like the pilgrim’s vision, the poem jumps away, into a non sequitur, in this case into an exclamation: “Oh Beatrice, dolce guida e cara!” (O Beatrice, sweet guide and dear! ). The exclamation “Oh Beatrice, dolce guida e cara!” is one of the textual components that Dante uses to fracture the narrative line in Paradiso 23, along with apostrophes, metaphoric language and affective similes.
I write in The Undivine Comedy of the “anti-narrative textual components” that Dante uses in Paradiso 23, in order to prevent a narrative line from forming:
The anti-narrative textual components of Paradiso 23 — apostrophes, exclamations, metaphoric language, and affective similes — are used by the poet to fracture his text; moments of plot are interrupted by an apostrophe, exclamation, or lyrical simile, deployed as a means of preventing a narrative line from forming. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 225)
Along with apostrophes, exclamations, metaphor, and lyrical similes, the other key anti-narrative component is the ineffability topos. To this last category belongs one of the poem’s great metapoetic moments, which falls in the center of Paradiso 23. Dante says that his poem can no longer hold to its course, that it has to swerve, leap, jump, as “one whose path is cut off”:
e così, figurando il paradiso, convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso. (Par. 23.61-63)
And thus, in representing Paradise, the sacred poem has to leap across, as does a man who finds his path cut off.
In other words, the linear narrative cammino of the poem, the narrative line that has been strung together in imitation of the pilgrim’s journey in which he encounters “le vite spiritali ad una ad una” (“the spiritual lives one by one” [Par. 33.24]), is now fractured. The narrative line is no longer sustainable, and so the sacred poem must jump.
In The Undivine Comedy I argue that this jumping discourse — this swerving into deliberate non sequitur — is programmatic, and that it constitutes Dante’s brilliant rhetorical response to the challenge of creating language that is non-differential and non-sequential. Language is always differential and sequential — how then to approximate an impossibility: unified language, equalized language?
The great metapoetic affirmation of poetic inadequacy cleaves Paradiso 23 in two: the vision of the Advent precedes it and the vision of the Annunciation follows it.
Toward the end of the canto Dante transcribes the very song sung by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, calling it a “circulata melodia” (Par. 23.109). In effect, Dante is giving us his own characterization of the “voce modesta / forse qual fu da l’angelo a Maria” (modest voice, perhaps much like the angel’s voice in speech to Mary) of Paradiso 14.35-36.
A supreme example of Dantean apparent simplicity, we notice that every verse of Gabriel’s song, comprising verses 103 to 108, is enjambed, but for the verse that ends the angel’s first tercet (verse 105). In other words, verses 103, 104, 106, and 107 are enjambed:
«Io sono amore angelico, che giro l’alta letizia che spira del ventre che fu albergo del nostro disiro; e girerommi, donna del ciel, mentre che seguirai tuo figlio, e farai dia più la spera suprema perché lì entre». Così la circulata melodia si sigillava, e tutti li altri lumi facean sonare il nome di Maria. (Par. 23.103-11)
“I am angelic love who wheel around that high gladness inspired by the womb that was the dwelling place of our Desire; so shall I circle, Lady of Heaven, until you, following your Son, have made that sphere supreme, still more divine by entering it.” So did the circulating melody, sealing itself, conclude; and all the other lights then resounded with the name of Mary.
Dante here uses enjambment to create the kind of circularized divine non-discursive discourse that he imagines to be proper to beings who do not use language, because they know everything in the mind of God and have no need for the form of communication language engages. He uses enjambment to create what he then calls a “circulata melodia” (109).
In scripting for Gabriel a “circulata melodia”, Dante also gives us an indicator of the kind of divine discursiveness at which he himself aims. In other words, the “circulata melodia” that Dante here creates for Gabriel is an apt descriptor for Paradiso 23 and for the special kind of language that becomes more evident as we come closer to the end of Paradiso.
Enjambment is a rhetorical trope that provides an excellent entry-point for understanding Dante’s linguistic and poetic goals at this point in the poem, for enjambment runs over the unit of verse and thereby unifies it to its successor, while at the same time somewhat compromising the syntax by not acknowledging and closing off the syntactic unit if it falls at the end of the line. As the word “enjambment” itself signifies, a “leg” (French “jambe”) is thrown over from one verse to the next, disabling the clear units of syntax but unifying the verses.
Thus the result of enjambing is effectively to “circularize” or de-narrativize the verse. In this way, enjambment is an analogue to other rhetorical moves that Dante employs in the Paradiso to circularize and de-narrativize his verse, such as hysteron proteron and chiasmus.
The narrative texture of Paradiso 23 can be understood as an example of enjambment writ large. The constant fracturing of the narrative cammino — the constant forcing of the poem to “jump, as one who finds his path cut off” (62-63), the jumping from plot to invocation to apostrophe to simile to some more plot followed by another simile and another apostrophe — results in poetry that has been circularized and de-narrativized.
In fact, Paradiso 23 is in effect a large-scale circulata melodia. Or, to reverse: circulata melodia is the small-scale emblem of the linguistic experiment that is Paradiso 23. For the entire canto is, as I note in The Undivine Comedy, “a kind of macro-enjambment”:
The circulata melodia that describes both the angel’s circling movement and his song is an apt if untranslatable label for the entire canto, itself a “circulated melody.” For the result of fracturing the discourse, of jumping about rhetorically — from plot to invocation to apostrophe to a simile to some more plot followed by another simile and another apostrophe — is, paradoxically enough (in an effect similar to that produced, on a local scale, by enjambment), to create a peculiarly unified or equalized linguistic texture: a texture from which disagguaglianza has been to some degree banished, a circulata melodia. The jumping discourse that governs canto 23 could be seen as a kind of macro-enjambment: enjambment operating not between individual verses but between segments of a canto. The jumping discourse is obtained by way of a poetics of enjambment, by way of a rupture that unifies. Canto 23 is in fact a strangely cohesive text, one that could be plucked entire out of the narrative fabric of the Commedia. Its unity is conferred by its lack of easy divisibility, its defiance of linear narrativity, in a word, by the fact that it jumps. (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 228-29)
The last verse of this canto is a periphrasis referring to Saint Peter, “colui che tien le chiavi di tal gloria” (he who is keeper of the keys of glory [Par. 23.139]), and is already an introduction to the very different tone — the return to linear narrativity and discursivity — that will dominate the “examination cantos” that follow.