Visible Speech

Purgatory consists of seven ledges or terraces carved into the rockface of the mountain, each of which is devoted to purging one of the seven capital vices: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. I call them “vices” rather than “sins” because, properly speaking, vices are the inclinations that lead to sins, which are specific actions rather than personality traits. Sin is punished in hell. Purgatory is the realm where souls who are saved purge themselves of the inclinations that caused the sins for which they repented, thus gaining admittance to this place and to this process.

In the Introduction to Purgatorio 1 I discussed the fact that purgatory was a relatively recent doctrinal acquisition compared to heaven and hell and therefore much less developed in theological and popular conception. As a result, Dante enjoyed great freedom in creating his purgatory. We have already seen that he devotes the first nine canti of Purgatorio to a waiting area where souls who are not yet ready to begin purgation prepare themselves.

Once we reach the terraces of “purgatory proper”, Dante has new inventions for us. He makes the experience of reading Purgatorio markedly different from the experience of reading Inferno by creating a uniform template that is imposed onto each of the seven terraces. The template involves examples of the virtue that corresponds to the vice being purged (these examples of virtue always begin with a story from the life of Mary, followed by biblical and classical vignettes), encounters with souls, examples of the vice being purged, and an angel who takes a “P” off the pilgrim’s brow at the end of each terrace and speeds him on his way:

Examples of the virtue corresponding to the vice being purged - Souls - Examples of the vice - Angel

We remember the straightforward quality of the first circles of hell, with a canto assigned to each circle: one canto for Limbo (Inferno 4), one canto for lust (Inferno 5), and one canto for gluttony (Inferno 6). In the same way, on the first terrace of purgatory the components of the template are arranged in the clearest possible way, one component to a canto: examples of the corresponding virtue (humility) in Purgatorio 10, encounters with souls in Purgatorio 11, and examples of the vice being purged (pride) in Purgatorio 12. See the attached chart of the structural components of Purgatorio 10-12.

As he reaches the later terraces, Dante finds ways to create variatio around this fixed template, and thus to create a reading experience that is somewhat liturgical.

***

The travelers enter through the “porta / che ’l mal amor dell’anime disusa” (Purg. 10.1-2): literally, the “gate that dishabituates the evil love of souls”. On this verse see the Introduction to Purgatorio 13, which points forward to the discussion of “malo amor” in the Introduction to Purgatorio 17.

Dante and Virgilio climb onto the first terrace of purgatory, the terrace of price, where they are confronted with marvelous artwork in the form of engravings sculpted into the mountain.

Much of the terrace of pride will consist of Dante’s descriptions of the artwork that he sees. These descriptions are lengthy ecphrases: ecphrasis is the rhetorical trope whereby one form of representation, such as poetry or verbal representation, reproduces another, in this case sculpted engravings. Ecphrasis is inherently metapoetic, in that it is a meditation on representation itself. The intensely metapoetic nature of the terrace of pride is discussed in Chapter 6 of The Undivine Comedy, which considers the paradoxes inherent in putting oneself in the position of “re-presenting” God’s art in one’s human language in the context of a treatment of humility.

Onto the marble sides of the mountain are engraved three scenes, re-presented so wondrously that they seem not “re-presented” but presented: they seem not art but life. They are so lifelike that not only the greatest of classical sculptors, Polycletus, would have been defeated by their artistry, but nature herself would be put to scorn:

  esser di marmo candido e addorno
d’intagli sì, che non pur Policleto,
ma la natura lì avrebbe scorno. (Purg. 10.31-33)
  was of white marble and adorned with carvings
so accurate—not only Polycletus
but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.

We learned at the end of Inferno 11 that nature creates in imitation of God; therefore it is clear that only God can be a superior artist to nature.

Dante comes back to the miraculous nature of the engravings later in the canto, where he explains that they are God’s handiwork, and gives them the wonderful label “visibile parlare” (Purg. 10.95), because they are so lifelike that they make speech itself visible:

  Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perché qui non si trova. (Purg. 10.94-96)
  This was the speech made visible by One
within whose sight no thing is new—but we,
who lack its likeness here, find novelty.

These engravings depict three examples of humility: the virtue that is the antithesis of the vice being purged on this terrace. The first example is from the life of Mary, and recounts the Annunciation; the second, also biblical, is the story of King David, “the humble psalmist” of Purg. 10.65, who dances before the Ark of the Covenant and scandalizes his proud wife; the third example is classical and recounts how the emperor Trajan is moved by the needs of a poor widow to interrupt his campaign. See The Undivine Comedy, pp. 123-26, for the narrative techniques used in representing these representations.

These examples spur the purging souls to emulate humility, and in this way—as announced in the canto’s second verse—the examples work to “dishabituate” the souls from the “evil love” of pride. How pride can be considered a perverted form of love is something we will learn in Purgatorio 17.

Toward the end of Purgatorio 10 the pilgrim sees shapes coming toward him bent over under grievous weights. These are the purging prideful. Now that we are in purgatory proper each vice is punished not just by the duration of time that is spent purging it but also by a specific physical torment: the prideful souls on this terrace are bent over beneath heavy stones, whose weight is greater or lesser depending on the degree of pride to be purged.

Once more pride is connected to artistry, as the bent souls are compared to sculpted caryatids, stone figures on medieval cathedrals whose knees are drawn up to their chests (Purg. 10.130-32).

Coordinated Reading

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 6, “Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of the Terrace of Pride,” entire. Chapter 6 is devoted to the three canti of the terrace of pride: Purgatorio 10-11-12.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Purgatorio 10: Visible Speech.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-10/

About the Commento

1 Poi fummo dentro al soglio de la porta
2 che ’l mal amor de l’anime disusa,
3 perché fa parer dritta la via torta,

4 sonando la senti’ esser richiusa;
5 e s’io avesse li occhi vòlti ad essa,
6 qual fora stata al fallo degna scusa?

7 Noi salavam per una pietra fessa,
8 che si moveva e d’una e d’altra parte,
9 sì come l’onda che fugge e s’appressa.

10 «Qui si conviene usare un poco d’arte»,
11 cominciò ’l duca mio, «in accostarsi
12 or quinci, or quindi al lato che si parte».

13 E questo fece i nostri passi scarsi,
14 tanto che pria lo scemo de la luna
15 rigiunse al letto suo per ricorcarsi,

16 che noi fossimo fuor di quella cruna;
17 ma quando fummo liberi e aperti
18 sù dove il monte in dietro si rauna,

19 io stancato e amendue incerti
20 di nostra via, restammo in su un piano
21 solingo più che strade per diserti.

22 Da la sua sponda, ove confina il vano,
23 al piè de l’alta ripa che pur sale,
24 misurrebbe in tre volte un corpo umano;

25 e quanto l’occhio mio potea trar d’ale,
26 or dal sinistro e or dal destro fianco,
27 questa cornice mi parea cotale.

28 Là sù non eran mossi i piè nostri anco,
29 quand’ io conobbi quella ripa intorno
30 che dritto di salita aveva manco,

31 esser di marmo candido e addorno
32 d’intagli sì, che non pur Policleto,
33 ma la natura lì avrebbe scorno.

34 L’angel che venne in terra col decreto
35 de la molt’ anni lagrimata pace,
36 ch’aperse il ciel del suo lungo divieto,

37 dinanzi a noi pareva sì verace
38 quivi intagliato in un atto soave,
39 che non sembiava imagine che tace.

40 Giurato si saria ch’el dicesse ‘ Ave!’ ;
41 perché iv’ era imaginata quella
42 ch’ad aprir l’alto amor volse la chiave;

43 e avea in atto impressa esta favella
44Ecce ancilla Deï’ , propriamente
45 come figura in cera si suggella.

46 «Non tener pur ad un loco la mente»,
47 disse ’l dolce maestro, che m’avea
48 da quella parte onde ’l cuore ha la gente.

49 Per ch’i’ mi mossi col viso, e vedea
50 di retro da Maria, da quella costa
51 onde m’era colui che mi movea,

52 un’altra storia ne la roccia imposta;
53 per ch’ io varcai Virgilio, e fe’mi presso,
54 acciò che fosse a li occhi miei disposta.

55 Era intagliato lì nel marmo stesso
56 lo carro e ’ buoi, traendo l’arca santa,
57 per che si teme officio non commesso.

58 Dinanzi parea gente; e tutta quanta,
59 partita in sette cori, a’ due mie’ sensi
60 faceva dir l’un ‘No’, l’altro ‘Sì, canta’.

61 Similemente al fummo de li ’ncensi
62 che v’era imaginato, li occhi e ’l naso
63 e al sì e al no discordi fensi.

64 Lì precedeva al benedetto vaso,
65 trescando alzato, l’umile salmista,
66 e più e men che re era in quel caso.

67 Di contra, effigïata ad una vista
68 d’un gran palazzo, Micòl ammirava
69 sì come donna dispettosa e trista.

70 I’ mossi i piè del loco dov’ io stava,
71 per avvisar da presso un’altra istoria,
72 che di dietro a Micòl mi biancheggiava.

73 Quiv’ era storïata l’alta gloria
74 del roman principato, il cui valore
75 mosse Gregorio a la sua gran vittoria;

76 i’ dico di Traiano imperadore;
77 e una vedovella li era al freno,
78 di lagrime atteggiata e di dolore.

79 Intorno a lui parea calcato e pieno
80 di cavalieri, e l’aguglie ne l’oro
81 sovr’ essi in vista al vento si movieno.

82 La miserella intra tutti costoro
83 pareva dir: «Segnor, fammi vendetta
84 di mio figliuol ch’è morto, ond’ io m’accoro»;

85 ed elli a lei rispondere: «Or aspetta
86 tanto ch’ i’ torni»; e quella: «Segnor mio»,
87 come persona in cui dolor s’affretta,

88 «se tu non torni?»; ed ei: «Chi fia dov’ io,
89 la ti farà»; ed ella: «L’altrui bene
90 a te che fia, se ’l tuo metti in oblio?»;

91 ond’ elli: «Or ti conforta; ch’ei convene
92 ch’i’ solva il mio dovere anzi ch’i’ mova:
93 giustizia vuole e pietà mi ritene».

94 Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
95 produsse esto visibile parlare,
96 novello a noi perché qui non si trova.

97 Mentr’ io mi dilettava di guardare
98 l’imagini di tante umilitadi,
99 e per lo fabbro loro a veder care,

100 «Ecco di qua, ma fanno i passi radi»,
101 mormorava il poeta, «molte genti:
102 questi ne ’nvïeranno a li alti gradi».

103 Li occhi miei, ch’a mirare eran contenti
104 per veder novitadi ond’ e’ son vaghi,
105 volgendosi ver’ lui non furon lenti.

106 Non vo’ però, lettor, che tu ti smaghi
107 di buon proponimento per udire
108 come Dio vuol che ’l debito si paghi.

109 Non attender la forma del martìre:
110 pensa la succession; pensa ch’al peggio
111 oltre la gran sentenza non può ire.

112 Io cominciai: «Maestro, quel ch’io veggio
113 muovere a noi, non mi sembian persone,
114 e non so che, sì nel veder vaneggio».

115 Ed elli a me: «La grave condizione
116 di lor tormento a terra li rannicchia,
117 sì che ’ miei occhi pria n’ebber tencione.

118 Ma guarda fiso là, e disviticchia
119 col viso quel che vien sotto a quei sassi:
120 già scorger puoi come ciascun si picchia».

121 O superbi cristian, miseri lassi,
122 che, de la vista de la mente infermi,
123 fidanza avete ne’ retrosi passi,

124 non v’accorgete voi che noi siam vermi
125 nati a formar l’angelica farfalla,
126 che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?

127 Di che l’animo vostro in alto galla,
128 poi siete quasi antomata in difetto,
129 sì come vermo in cui formazion falla?

130 Come per sostentar solaio o tetto,
131 per mensola talvolta una figura
132 si vede giugner le ginocchia al petto,

133 la qual fa del non ver vera rancura
134 nascere ’n chi la vede; così fatti
135 vid’ io color, quando puosi ben cura.

136 Vero è che più e meno eran contratti
137 secondo ch’avien più e meno a dosso;
138 e qual più pazïenza avea ne li atti,

139 piangendo parea dicer: ‘Più non posso’ .

When I had crossed the threshold of the gate
that—since the soul’s aberrant love would make
the crooked way seem straight—is seldom used,

I heard the gate resound and, hearing, knew
that it had shut; and if I’d turned toward it,
how could my fault have found a fit excuse?

Our upward pathway ran between cracked rocks;
they seemed to sway in one, then the other part,
just like a wave that flees, then doubles back.

“Here we shall need some ingenuity,”
my guide warned me, “as both of us draw near
this side or that side where the rock wall veers.”

This made our steps so slow and hesitant
that the declining moon had reached its bed
to sink back into rest, before we had

made our way through that needle’s eye; but when
we were released from it, in open space
above, a place at which the slope retreats,

I was exhausted; with the two of us
uncertain of our way, we halted on
a plateau lonelier than desert paths.

The distance from its edge, which rims the void,
in to the base of the steep slope, which climbs
and climbs, would measure three times one man’s body;

and for as far as my sight took its flight,
now to the left, now to the right—hand side,
that terrace seemed to me equally wide.

There we had yet to let our feet advance
when I discovered that the bordering bank—
less sheer than banks of other terraces—

was of white marble and adorned with carvings
so accurate—not only Polycletus
but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.

The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven

after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision—
he did not seem to be a silent image.

One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked

the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax.

“Your mind must not attend to just one part,”
the gentle master said—he had me on
the side of him where people have their heart.

At this, I turned my face and saw beyond
the form of Mary—on the side where stood
the one who guided me—another story

engraved upon the rock; therefore I moved
past Virgil and drew close to it, so that
the scene before my eyes was more distinct.

There, carved in that same marble, were the cart
and oxen as they drew the sacred ark,
which makes men now fear tasks not in their charge.

People were shown in front; and all that group,
divided into seven choirs, made
two of my senses speak—one sense said, “No,”

the other said, “Yes, they do sing”; just so,
about the incense smoke shown there, my nose
and eyes contended, too, with yes and no.

And there the humble psalmist went before
the sacred vessel, dancing, lifting up
his robe—he was both less and more than king.

Facing that scene, and shown as at the window
of a great palace, Michal watched as would
a woman full of scorn and suffering.

To look more closely at another carving,
which I saw gleaming white beyond Michal,
my feet moved past the point where I had stood.

And there the noble action of a Roman
prince was presented—he whose worth had urged
on Gregory to his great victory—

I mean the Emperor Trajan; and a poor
widow was near his bridle, and she stood
even as one in tears and sadness would.

Around him, horsemen seemed to press and crowd;
above their heads, on golden banners, eagles
were represented, moving in the wind.

Among that crowd, the miserable woman
seemed to be saying: “Lord, avenge me for
the slaying of my son—my heart is broken.”

And he was answering: “Wait now until
I have returned.” And she, as one in whom
grief presses urgently: “And, lord, if you

do not return?” And he: “The one who’ll be
in my place will perform it for you.” She:
“What good can others’ goodness do for you

if you neglect your own?” He: “Be consoled;
my duty shall be done before I go:
so justice asks, so mercy makes me stay.”

This was the speech made visible by One
within whose sight no thing is new—but we,
who lack its likeness here, find novelty.

While I took much delight in witnessing
these effigies of true humility—
dear, too, to see because He was their Maker—

the poet murmured: “See the multitude
advancing, though with slow steps, on this side:
they will direct us to the higher stairs.”

My eyes, which had been satisfied in seeking
new sights—a thing for which they long—did not
delay in turning toward him. But I would

not have you, reader, be deflected from
your good resolve by hearing from me now
how God would have us pay the debt we owe.

Don’t dwell upon the form of punishment:
consider what comes after that; at worst
it cannot last beyond the final Judgment.

“Master,” I said, “what I see moving toward us
does not appear to me like people, but
I can’t tell what is there—my sight’s bewildered.”

And he to me: “Whatever makes them suffer
their heavy torment bends them to the ground;
at first I was unsure of what they were.

But look intently there, and let your eyes
unravel what’s beneath those stones: you can
already see what penalty strikes each.”

O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place your confidence in backward steps,

do you not know that we are worms and born
to form the angelic butterfly that soars,
without defenses, to confront His judgment?

Why does your mind presume to flight when you
are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
before it has attained its final form?

Just as one sees at times—as corbel for
support of ceiling or of roof—a figure
with knees drawn up into its chest (and this

oppressiveness, unreal, gives rise to real
distress in him who watches it): such was
the state of those I saw when I looked hard.

They were indeed bent down—some less, some more—
according to the weights their backs now bore;
and even he whose aspect showed most patience,

in tears, appeared to say: “I can no more.”

WHEN we had crossed the threshhold of the door
Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
Because it makes the crooked way seem straight,

Re—echoing I heard it closed again;
And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it,
What for my failing had been fit excuse ?

We mounted upward through a rifted rock,
Which undulated to this side and that,
Even as a wave receding and advancing.

“Here it behoves us use a little art,”
Began my Leader, “to adapt ourselves
Now here, now there, to the receding side.”

And this our footsteps so infrequent made,
That sooner had the moon’s decreasing disk
Regained its bed to sink again to rest,

Than we were forth from out that needle’s eye;
But when we free and in the open were
There where the mountain backward piles itself,

I wearied out, and both of us uncertain
About our way, we stopped upon a plain
More desolate than roads across the deserts.

From where its margin borders on the void,
To foot of the high bank that ever rises,
A human body three times told would measure;

And far as eye of mine could wing its flight,
Now on the left, and on the right flank now,
The same this cornice did appear to me.

Thereon our feet had not been moved as yet,
When I perceived the embankment round about,
Which all right of ascent had interdicted,

To be of marble white, and so adorned
With sculptures, that not only Polycletus,
But Nature’s self, had there been put to shame.

The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings
Of peace, that had been wept for many a year,
And opened Heaven from its long interdict,

In front of us appeared so truthfully
There sculptured in a gracious attitude,
He did not seem an image that is silent.

One would have sworn that he was saying, _”Ave”;_
For she was there in effigy portrayed
Who turned the key to ope the exalted love,

And in her mien this language had impressed,
_”Ecce ancilla Dei,”_ as distinctly
As any figure stamps itself in wax.

Keep not thy mind upon one place alone,”
The gentle Master said, who had me standing
Upon that side where people have their hearts;

Whereat I moved mine eyes, and I beheld
In rear of Mary, and upon that side
Where he was standing who conducted me,

Another story on the rock imposed;
Wherefore I passed Virgilius and drew near,
So that before mine eyes it might be set.

There sculptured in the self—same marble were
The cart and oxen, drawing the holy ark,
Wherefore one dreads an office not appointed.

People appeared in front, and all of them
In seven choirs divided, of two senses
Made one say “No,” the other, “Yes, they sing.”

Likewise unto the smoke of the frankincense,
Which there was imaged forth, the eyes and nose
Were in the yes and no discordant made.

Preceded there the vessel benedight,
Dancing with girded loins, the humble Psalmist,
And more and less than King was he in this.

Opposite, represented at the window
Of a great palace, Michal looked upon him,
Even as a woman scornful and afflicted.

I moved my feet from where I had been standing,
To examine near at hand another story
Which after Michal glimmered white upon me.

There the high glory of the Roman Prince
Was chronicled, whose great beneficence
Moved Gregory to his great victory;

‘Tis of the Emperor Trajan I am speaking;
And a poor widow at his bridle stood,
In attitude of weeping and of grief.

Around about him seemed it thronged and full
Of cavaliers, and the eagles in the gold
Above them visibly in the wind were moving.

The wretched woman in the midst of these
Seemed to be saying: “Give me vengeance, Lord,
For my dead son, for whom my heart is breaking”

And he to answer her: “Now wait until
I shall return.”And she: “My Lord,” like one
In whom grief is impatient,”shouldst thou not

Return ?” And he: “Who shall be where I am
Will give it thee.” And she: “Good deed of others
What boots it thee, if thou neglect thine own ?”

Whence he: “Now comfort thee, for it behoves me
That I discharge my duty ere I move;
Justice so wills, and pity doth retain me.’

He who on no new thing has ever looked
Was the creator of this visible language,
Novel to us, for here it is not found.

While I delighted me in contemplating
The images of such humility,
And dear to look on for their Maker’s sake,

“Behold, upon this side, but rare they make
Their steps,” the Poet murmured, “many people,
These will direct us to the lofty stairs.”

Mine eyes, that in beholding were intent
To see new things, of which they curious are,
In turning round towards him were not slow.

But still I wish not, Reader, thou shouldst swerve
From thy good purposes, because thou hearest
How God ordaineth that the debt be paid;

Attend not to the fashion of the torment,
Think of what follows; think that at the worst
It cannot reach beyond the mighty sentence.

“Master,” began I, “that which I behold
Moving towards us seems to me not persons,
And what I know not, so in sight I waver.”

And he to me: “The grievous quality
Of this their torment bows them so to earth,
That my own eyes at first contended with it;

But look there fixedly, and disentangle
By sight what cometh underneath those stones;
Already canst thou see how each is stricken.”

O ye proud Christians! wretched, weary ones!
Who, in the vision of the mind infirm
Confidence have in your backsliding steps,

Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
That flieth unto judgment without screen ?

Why floats aloft your spirit high in air?
Like are ye unto insects undeveloped
Even as the worm in whom formation fails!

As to sustain a ceiling or a roof,
In place of corbel, oftentimes a figure
Is seen to join its knees unto its breast,

Which makes of the unreal real anguish
Arise in him who sees it, fashioned thus
Beheld I those, when I had ta’en good heed.

True is it, they were more or less bent down,
According as they more or less were laden;
And he who had most patience in his looks

Weeping did seem to say, “I can no more!”

When I had crossed the threshold of the gate
that—since the soul’s aberrant love would make
the crooked way seem straight—is seldom used,

I heard the gate resound and, hearing, knew
that it had shut; and if I’d turned toward it,
how could my fault have found a fit excuse?

Our upward pathway ran between cracked rocks;
they seemed to sway in one, then the other part,
just like a wave that flees, then doubles back.

“Here we shall need some ingenuity,”
my guide warned me, “as both of us draw near
this side or that side where the rock wall veers.”

This made our steps so slow and hesitant
that the declining moon had reached its bed
to sink back into rest, before we had

made our way through that needle’s eye; but when
we were released from it, in open space
above, a place at which the slope retreats,

I was exhausted; with the two of us
uncertain of our way, we halted on
a plateau lonelier than desert paths.

The distance from its edge, which rims the void,
in to the base of the steep slope, which climbs
and climbs, would measure three times one man’s body;

and for as far as my sight took its flight,
now to the left, now to the right—hand side,
that terrace seemed to me equally wide.

There we had yet to let our feet advance
when I discovered that the bordering bank—
less sheer than banks of other terraces—

was of white marble and adorned with carvings
so accurate—not only Polycletus
but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.

The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven

after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision—
he did not seem to be a silent image.

One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked

the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax.

“Your mind must not attend to just one part,”
the gentle master said—he had me on
the side of him where people have their heart.

At this, I turned my face and saw beyond
the form of Mary—on the side where stood
the one who guided me—another story

engraved upon the rock; therefore I moved
past Virgil and drew close to it, so that
the scene before my eyes was more distinct.

There, carved in that same marble, were the cart
and oxen as they drew the sacred ark,
which makes men now fear tasks not in their charge.

People were shown in front; and all that group,
divided into seven choirs, made
two of my senses speak—one sense said, “No,”

the other said, “Yes, they do sing”; just so,
about the incense smoke shown there, my nose
and eyes contended, too, with yes and no.

And there the humble psalmist went before
the sacred vessel, dancing, lifting up
his robe—he was both less and more than king.

Facing that scene, and shown as at the window
of a great palace, Michal watched as would
a woman full of scorn and suffering.

To look more closely at another carving,
which I saw gleaming white beyond Michal,
my feet moved past the point where I had stood.

And there the noble action of a Roman
prince was presented—he whose worth had urged
on Gregory to his great victory—

I mean the Emperor Trajan; and a poor
widow was near his bridle, and she stood
even as one in tears and sadness would.

Around him, horsemen seemed to press and crowd;
above their heads, on golden banners, eagles
were represented, moving in the wind.

Among that crowd, the miserable woman
seemed to be saying: “Lord, avenge me for
the slaying of my son—my heart is broken.”

And he was answering: “Wait now until
I have returned.” And she, as one in whom
grief presses urgently: “And, lord, if you

do not return?” And he: “The one who’ll be
in my place will perform it for you.” She:
“What good can others’ goodness do for you

if you neglect your own?” He: “Be consoled;
my duty shall be done before I go:
so justice asks, so mercy makes me stay.”

This was the speech made visible by One
within whose sight no thing is new—but we,
who lack its likeness here, find novelty.

While I took much delight in witnessing
these effigies of true humility—
dear, too, to see because He was their Maker—

the poet murmured: “See the multitude
advancing, though with slow steps, on this side:
they will direct us to the higher stairs.”

My eyes, which had been satisfied in seeking
new sights—a thing for which they long—did not
delay in turning toward him. But I would

not have you, reader, be deflected from
your good resolve by hearing from me now
how God would have us pay the debt we owe.

Don’t dwell upon the form of punishment:
consider what comes after that; at worst
it cannot last beyond the final Judgment.

“Master,” I said, “what I see moving toward us
does not appear to me like people, but
I can’t tell what is there—my sight’s bewildered.”

And he to me: “Whatever makes them suffer
their heavy torment bends them to the ground;
at first I was unsure of what they were.

But look intently there, and let your eyes
unravel what’s beneath those stones: you can
already see what penalty strikes each.”

O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place your confidence in backward steps,

do you not know that we are worms and born
to form the angelic butterfly that soars,
without defenses, to confront His judgment?

Why does your mind presume to flight when you
are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
before it has attained its final form?

Just as one sees at times—as corbel for
support of ceiling or of roof—a figure
with knees drawn up into its chest (and this

oppressiveness, unreal, gives rise to real
distress in him who watches it): such was
the state of those I saw when I looked hard.

They were indeed bent down—some less, some more—
according to the weights their backs now bore;
and even he whose aspect showed most patience,

in tears, appeared to say: “I can no more.”

WHEN we had crossed the threshhold of the door
Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
Because it makes the crooked way seem straight,

Re—echoing I heard it closed again;
And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it,
What for my failing had been fit excuse ?

We mounted upward through a rifted rock,
Which undulated to this side and that,
Even as a wave receding and advancing.

“Here it behoves us use a little art,”
Began my Leader, “to adapt ourselves
Now here, now there, to the receding side.”

And this our footsteps so infrequent made,
That sooner had the moon’s decreasing disk
Regained its bed to sink again to rest,

Than we were forth from out that needle’s eye;
But when we free and in the open were
There where the mountain backward piles itself,

I wearied out, and both of us uncertain
About our way, we stopped upon a plain
More desolate than roads across the deserts.

From where its margin borders on the void,
To foot of the high bank that ever rises,
A human body three times told would measure;

And far as eye of mine could wing its flight,
Now on the left, and on the right flank now,
The same this cornice did appear to me.

Thereon our feet had not been moved as yet,
When I perceived the embankment round about,
Which all right of ascent had interdicted,

To be of marble white, and so adorned
With sculptures, that not only Polycletus,
But Nature’s self, had there been put to shame.

The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings
Of peace, that had been wept for many a year,
And opened Heaven from its long interdict,

In front of us appeared so truthfully
There sculptured in a gracious attitude,
He did not seem an image that is silent.

One would have sworn that he was saying, _”Ave”;_
For she was there in effigy portrayed
Who turned the key to ope the exalted love,

And in her mien this language had impressed,
_”Ecce ancilla Dei,”_ as distinctly
As any figure stamps itself in wax.

Keep not thy mind upon one place alone,”
The gentle Master said, who had me standing
Upon that side where people have their hearts;

Whereat I moved mine eyes, and I beheld
In rear of Mary, and upon that side
Where he was standing who conducted me,

Another story on the rock imposed;
Wherefore I passed Virgilius and drew near,
So that before mine eyes it might be set.

There sculptured in the self—same marble were
The cart and oxen, drawing the holy ark,
Wherefore one dreads an office not appointed.

People appeared in front, and all of them
In seven choirs divided, of two senses
Made one say “No,” the other, “Yes, they sing.”

Likewise unto the smoke of the frankincense,
Which there was imaged forth, the eyes and nose
Were in the yes and no discordant made.

Preceded there the vessel benedight,
Dancing with girded loins, the humble Psalmist,
And more and less than King was he in this.

Opposite, represented at the window
Of a great palace, Michal looked upon him,
Even as a woman scornful and afflicted.

I moved my feet from where I had been standing,
To examine near at hand another story
Which after Michal glimmered white upon me.

There the high glory of the Roman Prince
Was chronicled, whose great beneficence
Moved Gregory to his great victory;

‘Tis of the Emperor Trajan I am speaking;
And a poor widow at his bridle stood,
In attitude of weeping and of grief.

Around about him seemed it thronged and full
Of cavaliers, and the eagles in the gold
Above them visibly in the wind were moving.

The wretched woman in the midst of these
Seemed to be saying: “Give me vengeance, Lord,
For my dead son, for whom my heart is breaking”

And he to answer her: “Now wait until
I shall return.”And she: “My Lord,” like one
In whom grief is impatient,”shouldst thou not

Return ?” And he: “Who shall be where I am
Will give it thee.” And she: “Good deed of others
What boots it thee, if thou neglect thine own ?”

Whence he: “Now comfort thee, for it behoves me
That I discharge my duty ere I move;
Justice so wills, and pity doth retain me.’

He who on no new thing has ever looked
Was the creator of this visible language,
Novel to us, for here it is not found.

While I delighted me in contemplating
The images of such humility,
And dear to look on for their Maker’s sake,

“Behold, upon this side, but rare they make
Their steps,” the Poet murmured, “many people,
These will direct us to the lofty stairs.”

Mine eyes, that in beholding were intent
To see new things, of which they curious are,
In turning round towards him were not slow.

But still I wish not, Reader, thou shouldst swerve
From thy good purposes, because thou hearest
How God ordaineth that the debt be paid;

Attend not to the fashion of the torment,
Think of what follows; think that at the worst
It cannot reach beyond the mighty sentence.

“Master,” began I, “that which I behold
Moving towards us seems to me not persons,
And what I know not, so in sight I waver.”

And he to me: “The grievous quality
Of this their torment bows them so to earth,
That my own eyes at first contended with it;

But look there fixedly, and disentangle
By sight what cometh underneath those stones;
Already canst thou see how each is stricken.”

O ye proud Christians! wretched, weary ones!
Who, in the vision of the mind infirm
Confidence have in your backsliding steps,

Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
That flieth unto judgment without screen ?

Why floats aloft your spirit high in air?
Like are ye unto insects undeveloped
Even as the worm in whom formation fails!

As to sustain a ceiling or a roof,
In place of corbel, oftentimes a figure
Is seen to join its knees unto its breast,

Which makes of the unreal real anguish
Arise in him who sees it, fashioned thus
Beheld I those, when I had ta’en good heed.

True is it, they were more or less bent down,
According as they more or less were laden;
And he who had most patience in his looks

Weeping did seem to say, “I can no more!”