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 of the journey, verses 1-39, and the coda to the prayer that introduces the narrative past tense (the narrator looking back at the journey), 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 analyze Paradiso 33 by dividing it, searching for the narrative line 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. These can also be considered 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.
Here is an outline that parses Paradiso 33 as four narrative blocks: the prayer to the Virgin, followed by the three circular movements — three “circulate melodie” — in which Dante tells the story of the pilgrim’s final vision and incorporation into the divine.
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 insufficiency 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. He first states unequivocally that he reached the goal of his quest — “l’ardor del desiderio in me finii” (I consummated the ardor of my desire ) — and then describes 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” (but) with the time-blurring adverb “già” (already) that will be reprised to such effect in the poem’s conclusion. Thus, Bernard signals to the pilgrim to look up, “but I, already was doing what he wanted me to do”: “ma io era / già per me stesso tal qual ei volea” (50-51). 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 “such transgression”: “tanto oltraggio” (57).
In three beautiful and quintessentially affective similes, the poet figures both his gain and his loss:
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.
Here too the narrator provides a set of three, in this case three remarkable similes:
- Dante 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.
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.
The first movement circles paradigmatically through the three rhetorical building blocks outlined above: it moves from plot/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 clearly articulated. Again, it begins with a moment of plot, which contains an even more unequivocal and straightforward statement of arrival than the one in verse 48.
This declaration of arrival is 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” (77) —, the pilgrim is daring — “ardito” (79) — 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. Now the poet apostrophizes the grace that permitted his presumption (the verb presumere in verse 82), his daring 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 above apostrophe in turn jumps into an attempt to say what was seen within that light, and we are immediately 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. Dante’s 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” (saying this, I feel that I take joy ).
That one moment — “Un punto solo” — of comprehension of the universal form of things is the source for Dante of greater wonder and oblivion than are for us (all of us: the collective and historical multitudes of us) the twenty-five centuries that have passed since . . . since what? What choice will Dante make to complete this extraordinary analogy?
He makes a choice that summons the ancient world to life one more time, and that is the synthesis of all the watery imagery that has flooded the cantica devoted to “lo gran mar de l’essere”: the great sea of being (Par. 1.113). The poet compares his own moment of stunned comprehension to the moment when Neptune, the god of the sea, looked up and saw the shadow of the first ship.
Neptune is the Roman name for the Greek god Poseidon, and it is of Poseidon that we should be thinking here, for the builder of the first ship was the hero Jason: a Greek, and wily, not unlike Odysseus.
Dante conjures the moment when the god of the sea saw for the first time the invention and creativity of men, who had learned to sail those very seas of which Neptune was master, thus demonstrating a mastery of their own. Dante’s Neptune analogy is thus the culmination of other moments devoted to human creativity in Paradiso: for instance Adam’s discussion of language-making in Paradiso 26.
The first ship is the Argo, sailed by Jason, the Argonaut. More figures from deepest antiquity thus crowd the scene in this final canto of the Empyrean. The phrase “the shadow of the Argo” — ”l’ombra d’Argo” — at the end of this terzina manifests Dante’s antiquarian precision and his desire to make the pagan world manifest, even in this highest reach of the Christian universe:
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!
What, in synthesis, does this extraordinary passage tell us with respect to the pilgrim? The twenty-five centuries that have passed since the sailing of the first ship, the Argo, have not incurred more forgetfulness than the one nanosecond in which Dante viewed all creation bound together in one volume: the nanosecond in which he saw “La forma universal di questo nodo” (the universal shape of that knot [Par. 33.91]). Or, if we insert agents into this drama, we could paraphrase as follows: we humans — 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.
In the wonderful synthesis of one of my students: Dante says his memory of the vision is more lost than 2500 years make dim Neptune’s vision of seeing the shadow of the Argo gliding over the open ocean.
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 twenty-five 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” (from now on) 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 these verses Dante recalls the previous two canti of anti-narrative “infantile” speechlessness, Paradiso 23 and 30. He now 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.
Let me repeat this remarkable fact, to my knowledge first suggested in the analysis of Paradiso 33 in The Undivine Comedy: when we remove the first narrative block of Paradiso 33, the prayer to the Virgin and transition back to plot, 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. The end of the first movement, line 75 in the original, visible, numbering, is now line 30 in the numbering produced by Dante’s invisible ink. The end of the second movement, line 105 in the original numbering, is now line 60. And the poem’s last line is now, by virtue of divine renumbering in God’s invisible ink, line 100.
The last line of the Divine Comedy is number 100, and the three circulate melodie that recount the action of Paradiso 33 are numbered thus:
- circulata melodia 1: verses 46-75 are now revealed, in invisible ink, to be verses 1-30
- circulata melodia 2: verses 76-105 are now revealed, in invisible ink, to be verses 31-60
- circulata melodia 3: verses 106-145 are now revealed, in invisible ink, to be verses 61-100
Moreover, Paradiso 33’s final circulata melodia of 40 verses (verses 106-145) 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. Thus we now have the scheme 30 + 30 + 30 + 10, as follows:
- circulata melodia 1 = 30 verses
- circulata melodia 2 = 30 verses
- circulata melodia 3 = 30 verses + 10 verses
Total = 100 verses
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. Let me interject that the reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” in the previous sentence is deliberate: not in order to suggest that Hopkins’ rhetorical techniques were akin to Dante’s, but as a nod to the shared recognition that a poet must look for technical aids to achieve the unachievable in language.
The disjunctive syntax manages both to communicate an “event” and to conflate all narrativity into a textual approximation of the igualmente — the equality, the homology, the silence — 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 grammatical subject of the sentence last. In this way he is able to conclude the poem with a present tense. The subject of the sentence is God, referenced not in a single word but in the famous periphrasis for God that ends the Commedia: “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: altre — other. Dante’s God is not just the unmoved mover, not just the love that moves the stars. Dante’s 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. I suggest we 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 (109C) that it goes back to my years as Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of California at Berkeley: my first job, I taught at Berkeley from 1978 to 1983. The three circular movements were almost right. Later, I was able to correct the precise contours of the three circulate melodie by drawing on the numerology provided by Dante’s invisible ink.