The prayer to the Virgin, uttered by Saint Bernard, requests intercession for the pilgrim that he may complete his quest to attain the “beatific vision”: a vision of the transcendent principle that holds the universe together, “bound by love in one volume” (Par. 33.86). The prayer to the Virgin and the transitional verses that follow it encompass the first 45 verses of the canto: Bernard’s prayer in the present tense, verses 1-39, and the coda to the prayer that introduces the narrative past tense, verses 40-45.
The first verse of the canto—“Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio” (Virgin mother, daughter of your son)—is the very embodiment of the paradoxes that are the constituent feature of Dante’s paradise. The prayer ends in verse 39 and then there are two terzine that transition from the prayer to the “plot”, which resumes in verse 46, with the statement that Dante is nearing the “end of all desires”:
E io ch’al fine di tutt’i disii appropinquava, sì com’io dovea, l’ardor del desiderio in me finii. (Par. 33.46-48)
And I, who now was nearing Him who is the end of all desires, as I ought, lifted my longing to its ardent limit.
What follows is the “story” of the pilgrim’s gaze, as it finally ascends to the beatific vision.
If we divide Paradiso 33, searching for the narrative structure that it resists, we begin by distinguishing the oratorical prelude of the canto’s first third, its first 45 verses, from the ensuing story of the pilgrim’s final ascent. This story can, I believe, be viewed as three circular waves of discourse (like the rippling motion of water in a round vase that is compared to waves of spoken speech at the beginning of Paradiso 14): three circulate melodie, three “jumps” by which the poet zeroes in on his poem’s climax. He approaches and backs off, approaches and backs off again, and finally arrives.
Each of these circular movements is made up of three textual building blocks used by the poet to keep the text jumping, to prevent a narrative line from forming. The three textual building blocks are:
- brief moments of “plot,” where the pilgrim does something or something happens to him, distinguished by the past tense;
- metapoetic statements about the insufficiencies of the poet to his task;
- apostrophes to the divinity praying for aid.
The first of the circular movements, which I posit from lines 46 to 75, articulates most clearly the three textual components. It begins with a sequence of pure plot, in which Dante narrates what happened in the past tense, first stating unequivocally that “l’ardor del desiderio in me finii” (I lifted my longing to its ardent limit ), and then describing how he looked upward, training his gaze more and more (“più e più” now takes the place of “più e meno”) along the divine ray (46-54).
Even in this relatively straightforward and linear recounting, we note the slippage that is typical of this canto, as Dante inaugurates the technique of coupling the adversative “ma” with the time-blurring adverb “già” that will be reprised to such effect in the poem’s conclusion. Thus, in verses 50-51, Bernard signals to the pilgrim to look up, “ma io era / già per me stesso tal qual ei volea” (but I, already was doing what he wanted me to do). We now move into the present tense, as the poet takes the stage, telling us that thenceforward his vision was greater than his speech can express, since his memory yields before such a going beyond, before “tanto oltraggio” (57). In three beautiful and quintessentially affective similes, the poet figures both his gain and his loss:
- he is as one who sees in dream, but who after his vision retains only the imprinted sentiment, the “passione impressa” (59);
- in the same way that his vision ceases, leaving behind a distilled sweetness in his heart, so does snow melt under the sun,
- so in light leaves cast to the wind were the Sibyl’s oracles lost:
Così la neve al sol si disigilla; così al vento ne le foglie levi si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla. (Par. 33.64-66)
So is the snow, beneath the sun, unsealed; and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind, the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost.
At this point, in an abrupt “jump” away from the lyrical peak formed by these similes, which impress upon us emotionally what cannot be understood rationally (working to transfer to us the “passione impressa” experienced by the pilgrim), we move into a prayer/apostrophe, also in the present tense, in which the poet begs that his tongue may be granted the power to tell but a little of what he saw. Beginning with the vocative “O somma luce” (O highest light ), this segment takes us to the end of the first circular movement, verse 75.
Whereas the first movement circles paradigmatically from “event” to the poet’s inability to recount that event, to his appeal for help in verbalizing what he has thus far not proved able to express, the second movement, which encompasses lines 76 to 105, is less articulated. Again, it begins with a moment of plot, which contains what is probably the canto’s most straightforward statement of arrival, situated in a passage whose rhyme words offer a veritable archeology of the Commedia’s thematics. Afraid to look away lest he be lost (“smarrito” ), the pilgrim is daring (“ardito” ) enough to sustain the light, and so he reaches his journey’s end: “i’ giunsi / l’aspetto mio col valore infinito” (my vision reached the Infinite Goodness [80-81]). Immediately, as though that conjoining of the individual one (“io”, “mio”) with the infinite One were not sustainable at a narrative level, the text jumps into an exclamatory terzina as the poet apostrophizes the grace that permitted his oltraggio:
Oh abbondante grazia ond’io presunsi ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna, tanto che la veduta vi consunsi! (Par. 33.82-84)
O grace abounding, through which I presumed to set my eyes on the Eternal Light so long that I spent all my sight on it!
The apostrophe in turn jumps into an attempt to say what was seen within that light, and we are thrust into the poem’s ultimate metaphor of unity:
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna legato con amore in un volume, ciò che per l’universo si squaderna: sustanze e accidenti e lor costume quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume. (Par. 33.85-90)
In its profundity I saw—ingathered and bound by love into one single volume— what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered: substances, accidents, and dispositions as if conjoined—in such a way that what I tell is only rudimentary.
The ineffable perception of the “forma universal” is felt rather than comprehended. His recollection is affective, not intellective; he believes he saw the “forma universal” because he feels joy as he speaks of it: “dicendo questo, mi sento ch’i’ godo” (93).
That one moment—“Un punto solo”—is the source for him of greater wonder and oblivion than are for us the twenty-five centuries that have passed since Neptune saw the shadow of the first ship, Jason’s Argo:
Un punto solo m’è maggior letargo che venticinque secoli a la ’mpresa che fé Nettuno ammirar l’ombra d’Argo. (Par. 33.94-96)
That one moment brings more forgetfulness to me than twenty-five centuries have brought to the endeavor that startled Neptune with the Argo's shadow!
In other words, we—who have been forgetting the object of Neptune’s wonder, the sight of the Argo’s shadow, for 2500 years—have in all that time lost less of Neptune’s vision than Dante has already lost of his.
The instability of the amazing analogy is structural, since the “punto solo” is analogous both, as object of the vision, to the Argo and, as duration of the vision, to the 25 centuries. Making the terzina even more impossible to hold onto is the fact that its main action is forgetting: active, continual, endlessly accreted forgetting. Infinitely fascinating, infinitely impenetrable and dense, the Neptune analogy is a fitting emblem for the poetics of Paradiso 33, and indeed for Paradiso as a whole.
A terzina of plot in which the pilgrim continues to gaze on the divine light (97-99), is followed by a passage that is essentially the poem’s last contribution to Dante’s long meditation on conversion, desire, and the will. The effect of gazing on that light is to make impossible any dis-conversion, any consenting to turn from it toward another sight: “che volgersi da lei per altro aspetto / è impossibil che mai si consenta” (it would be impossible for him to set that Light aside for other sight [101-02]).
At this point begins the last, and longest, of Paradiso 33’s three circulate melodie. The transitional adverb “Omai” starts off the final movement by telling us that we are reaching finality. The poem cannot continue much longer, because the poet’s speech is becoming ever more insufficient, as “short” with relation to his task as that of a suckling infant:
Omai sarà più corta mia favella, pur a quel ch’io ricordo, che d’un fante che bagni ancor la lingua a la mammella. (Par. 33.106-08)
What little I recall is to be told, from this point on, in words more weak than those of one whose infant tongue still bathes at the breast.
With this recall of the previous two canti of anti-narrative “infantile” speechlessness, Paradiso 23 and 30, Dante jumps into plot. Not because the light into which he gazed was changing—for it was one and only one, “simple” (109) rather than various, so untouched by time or difference that “It is always what It was before” (“tal è sempre qual s’era davante” )—but because of changes within himself, the light was transformed. Within the luminous substance there appeared three circles of three colors and one dimension, two reflecting each other like rainbows and the third mediating equally in between:
e l’un da l’altro come iri da iri parea reflesso, e ’l terzo parea foco che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri. (Par. 33.118-20)
one circle seemed reflected by the second, as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.
But the effort to sustain the narrative line is too great, and the poet breaks in, first to exclaim again about the “shortness” of his speech (121-23) and then to address the eternal light that alone knows itself, is known by itself, and, knowing, loves itself (124-26). The apostrophe’s Trinitarian language moves the poet back into plot, into confronting the ultimate mystery of the incarnation, of the second circle that is painted within itself, in its same color, with our human image, “nostra effige” (131). Like a geometer who concentrates all his energies on squaring the circle but cannot find the principle he needs (an intellective rather than affective simile, but devoted to the intellect’s failure), such is the pilgrim before that final paradox, “that new vision”: “quella vista nova” (136).
The “vista nova” of verse 136 marks the poem’s last beginning of the end, its last cosa nova, its newest encounter with the new. The verse that contains it is the tenth from the end, a fact that is likely not coincidental, as it is not coincidental that, upon removing Paradiso 33’s prelude of 45 verses, there remain precisely one hundred lines of text.
Now I come to the invisible ink of Paradiso 33. These one hundred lines, verses 46-145, if renumbered with verse 46 as verse 1, confirm the three circular movements suggested above, by giving them numerological significance. In the new numbering, line 75, the end of the first movement, is now line 30; line 105 is now line 60; and the poem’s last line is now, by virtue of divine renumbering in God’s invisible ink, line 100:
circulata melodia 1: 46-75 ⇒ 1-30 circulata melodia 2: 76-105 ⇒ 31-60 circulata melodia 3: 106-45 ⇒ 61-100
Moreover, Paradiso 33’s final circulata melodia of 40 verses can be further subdivided at the “vista nova” 10 lines from the end, so that the Commedia’s final 100 verses recapitulate the threes and ones of its basic structure in the scheme 30 + 30 + 30 + 10, as follows:
circulata melodia 1: 46-75 ⇒ 1-30 30 circulata melodia 2: 76-105 ⇒ 31-60 30 circulata melodia 3: 106-35 ⇒ 61-90 30 135-45 ⇒ 91-100 10
At the end the sacred poem is forced to jump; and it does, sprung by disjunctive conjunctions that reverse the text’s direction from verse to verse, managing both to communicate an “event” and to conflate all narrativity into a textual approximation of the igualmente to which we hasten:
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne: se non che la mia mente fu percossa da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne. (Par. 33.139-41)
And my own wings were far too weak for that. But then my mind was struck by light that flashed and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Another jump occurs as the poet speaks of his poetic failure one last time—“A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa” (Here force failed my high fantasy )—and still another as he records a final event with a final time-defying adversative. His self, his singular and historical self, is now revolving with the spheres. Or rather, it is being revolved—by the Love that moves everything, including him. The last verb that touches on plot is in the imperfect tense (“volgeva”), as it has to be, since the voyage occurred in the past, but Dante reverses the order of the syntax, putting the subject last, and thus concludes the poem with a present tense. The subject that comes last is a periphrasis for God, “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” (the Love that moves the sun and the other stars ); as a periphrasis it does not belong to the diegetic time-line of the plot, and it allows Dante to end the Commedia with an eternal present:
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa, l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)
but my desire and will were moved already— like a wheel revolving uniformly—by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
A final note. When Dante reaches the end of his vision and is granted the sight of the universe bound together in one volume, what entrances him is not plain Oneness but all that multiplicity somehow contained and unified. His heart is set on seeing and knowing that multiplicity, an otherness that is still stubbornly present in the poem’s penultimate word. God is the love that moves the sun and the other stars: “l’amor che move ’l sole e l’altre stelle”.
Much has been written about the transcendent stelle with which the Commedia ends; let us give due weight as well to the adjective that modifies those stars, the poem’s penultimate word, altre. Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath.
 Below is a chart of the narrative structure of Paradiso 33 made as a class hand-out. Undated, I know from the course number that it goes back to my years at the University of California at Berkeley, my first job, where I taught from 1978-1983. The three circular movements were almost right. Later, I was able to correct the precise contours of the three circulate melodie based on the numerology of the invisible ink.