Six Wings or Four?

In the last pages of Chapter 7 of The Undivine Comedy, “Nonfalse Errors and the True Dreams of the Evangelist,” I treat the events of the earthly paradise as a key moment in the Commedia’s exploration of a visionary modality. As he has explored poetic genealogies unfolding in time—from its Occitan origins (Arnaut Daniel and Giraut de Bornelh in Purgatorio 26) to the Sicilian School (the “Notaio” of Purgatorio 24) to the Tuscan school (Bonagiunta da Lucca, Guittone d’Arezzo of Purgatorio 24) to Guinizzelli, the “sweet father” of Purgatorio 26, and finally to Dante himself and the dolce stil novo—so now Dante designs a visionary genealogy unfolding in time: from the Old Testament prophet and visionary Ezekiel, to the New Testament visionary author of the Apocalpyse, St. John, to Dante himself. Both genealogies, the poetic and the prophetic, conclude with the Divine Comedy.

Purgatorio 29 is a canto devoted to macro-history, in particular to the prophetic genealogy and to the visionary mode. In this canto a procession slowly takes shape, item by item, personage by personage, for the pilgrim’s viewing. Attached is an attempt at a schematic diagram of the procession.

A second diagram represents a linear unfolding of the events between Purgatorio 29 and 33, divided into five Acts. As you can see, Purgatorio 29 is the site for Act 1: the formation of the procession.

Purgatorio 33

The first terzina of Purgatorio 29 is one of the great examples of Dante’s cultural density:

  Cantando come donna innamorata,
continuò col fin di sue parole:
‘Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata!’. (Purg. 29.1-3)
  Her words were done, but without interruption
she sang—like an enamored woman—thus:
“Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata!”

The first verse echoes Guido Cavalcanti’s pastorella (a sensuous love poem written by Dante’s friend), gesturing back toward the delicate sensuality of Purgatorio 28, and the third verse is a Psalm, looking forward to the biblical character of Purgatorio 29. The Cavalcantian first verse describes the way that Matelda sings (“Cantando come donna innamorata”), while the biblical third verse constitutes the words of her song. So Cavalcanti qualifies a Psalm!

The affect of the episode shifts sharply, as Matelda becomes teacher rather than lyric lover, and directs Dante to focus on the unfolding of the procession that represents the coming of the word of God into history.

The books of the Bible arrive as embodied figures. First to arrive are twenty-four old men representing the Old Testament. They are followed by an empty chariot, which represents the church, drawn by a griffin, traditionally taken as a representation of Christ. The chariot is surrounded by seven female figures who represent the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues, as well as by four figures who represent the four evangelists. Behind the chariot are the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Paul, and the minor Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. Bringing up the rear is “un vecchio solo . . . dormendo, con la faccia arguta”: “a lone old man, his features keen, advanced, as if in sleep” (Purg. 29.143-44). This is John, the author of the Apocalypse (in Dante’s day the author of the Gospel of John and the author of the Apocalypse were held to be the same John); he is in a visionary trance, “asleep”, yet keenly sighted.

Very important is the section in which Dante addresses the reader, comparing his task in describing what he saw to the tasks of the biblical prophet-visionaries: Ezekiel (Old Testament) and John (Apocalypse, New Testament). This is the section where he places himself in a visionary genealogy. He describes the four animals that represent the four Gospels in the procession, explicitly stating that he disagrees with Ezekiel as to the number of their wings (Ezekiel had posited four). He, Dante, agrees with John that each one had six wings:

  Ognuno era pennuto di sei ali;
le penne piene d'occhi; e li occhi d'Argo,
se fosser vivi, sarebber cotali.
  A descriver lor forme più non spargo
rime, lettor; ch’altra spesa mi strigne,
tanto ch’a questa non posso esser largo;
  ma leggi Ezechiel, che li dipigne
come li vide da la fredda parte
venir con vento e con nube e con igne;
  e quali i troverai ne le sue carte,
tali eran quivi, salvo ch’a le penne
Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte. (Purg. 29.94-105)
  Each had six wings as plumage, and those plumes
were full of eyes; they would be very like
the eyes of Argus, were his eyes alive.
  Reader, I am not squandering more rhymes
in order to describe their forms; since I
must spend elsewhere, I can’t be lavish here;
  but read Ezekiel, for he has drawn
those animals approaching from the north;
with wings and cloud and fire, he painted them.
  And just as you will find them in his pages,
such were they here, except that John’s with me
as to their wings; with him, John disagrees.

As I write in The Undivine Comedy, p. 156:

In this passage Dante instructs us regarding the appearance of the four animals representing the evangelists in the procession: each one has six wings, covered with eyes, as plentiful as the eyes of Argus, whose hundred watchful eyes were enlisted by Juno to guard her rival Io, as recounted by Ovid. Since the poet cannot spare the time to describe (“descriver”) the gospel animals in greater detail, we are to read Ezekiel, who “paints them as he saw them”; in the matter of the number of their wings, however, we are to John, the seer who relived Ezekiel’s vision and who agrees with Dante that they have six wings rather than four. The passage presents a visionary genealogy: Dante moves from Ovidian Argus, to an Old Testament prophet, to a prophet of the new dispensation, the author of the text that will appear at canto’s end in visionary posture, as the senex who approaches “dormendo, con la faccia” (144).

As noted, the four figures representing the four evangelists surround a triumphal chariot pulled by a griffin; much of what occurs in the later canti of the earthly paradise will occur to or around this chariot.

A final note: Dante paved the way for many literary “inventions” that we do not associate with him, because he genially touched on them, without developing them further. For instance, the trope of the “anniversary poem”, which we associate with Petrarch, in fact has its origins in Dante’s Vita Nuova. Similarly, the important Renaissance genre of the “triumph”, which we associate with Boccaccio and Petrarch, has its seminal origin in the procession of Purgatorio 29.

Coordinated Reading

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, on visionary experience: Chapter 7, “Nonfalse Errors and the True Dreams of the Evangelist,” especially pp. 154-63; “Arachne, Argus, and St. John: Transgressive Art in Dante and Ovid,” 1989, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture; “Why Did Dante Write the Commedia? Dante and the Visionary Tradition,” 1993, rpt. Dante and the Origins.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Purgatorio 29: Six Wings or Four?.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-29/

About the Commento

1Cantando come donna innamorata,
2continüò col fin di sue parole:
3‘Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata!’.

4E come ninfe che si givan sole
5per le salvatiche ombre, disïando
6qual di veder, qual di fuggir lo sole,

7allor si mosse contra ’l fiume, andando
8su per la riva; e io pari di lei,
9picciol passo con picciol seguitando.

10Non eran cento tra ’ suoi passi e ’ miei,
11quando le ripe igualmente dier volta,
12per modo ch’a levante mi rendei.

13Né ancor fu così nostra via molta,
14quando la donna tutta a me si torse,
15dicendo: «Frate mio, guarda e ascolta».

16Ed ecco un lustro sùbito trascorse
17da tutte parti per la gran foresta,
18tal che di balenar mi mise in forse.

19Ma perché ’l balenar, come vien, resta,
20e quel, durando, più e più splendeva,
21nel mio pensier dicea: ‘Che cosa è questa?’.

22E una melodia dolce correva
23per l’aere luminoso; onde buon zelo
24mi fé riprender l’ardimento d’Eva,

25che là dove ubidia la terra e ’l cielo,
26femmina, sola e pur testé formata,
27non sofferse di star sotto alcun velo;

28sotto ’l qual se divota fosse stata,
29avrei quelle ineffabili delizie
30sentite prima e più lunga fïata.

31Mentr’ io m’andava tra tante primizie
32de l’etterno piacer tutto sospeso,
33e disïoso ancora a più letizie,

34dinanzi a noi, tal quale un foco acceso,
35ci si fé l’aere sotto i verdi rami;
36e ’l dolce suon per canti era già inteso.

37O sacrosante Vergini, se fami,
38freddi o vigilie mai per voi soffersi,
39cagion mi sprona ch’io mercé vi chiami.

40Or convien che Elicona per me versi,
41e Uranìe m’aiuti col suo coro
42forti cose a pensar mettere in versi.

43Poco più oltre, sette alberi d’oro
44falsava nel parere il lungo tratto
45del mezzo ch’era ancor tra noi e loro;

46ma quand’ i’ fui sì presso di lor fatto,
47che l’obietto comun, che ’l senso inganna,
48non perdea per distanza alcun suo atto,

49la virtù ch’a ragion discorso ammanna,
50sì com’ elli eran candelabri apprese,
51e ne le voci del cantare ‘Osanna’.

52Di sopra fiammeggiava il bello arnese
53più chiaro assai che luna per sereno
54di mezza notte nel suo mezzo mese.

55Io mi rivolsi d’ammirazion pieno
56al buon Virgilio, ed esso mi rispuose
57con vista carca di stupor non meno.

58Indi rendei l’aspetto a l’alte cose
59che si movieno incontr’ a noi sì tardi,
60che foran vinte da novelle spose.

61La donna mi sgridò: «Perché pur ardi
62sì ne l’affetto de le vive luci,
63e ciò che vien di retro a lor non guardi?».

64Genti vid’ io allor, come a lor duci,
65venire appresso, vestite di bianco;
66e tal candor di qua già mai non fuci.

67L’acqua imprendëa dal sinistro fianco,
68e rendea me la mia sinistra costa,
69s’io riguardava in lei, come specchio anco.

70Quand’ io da la mia riva ebbi tal posta,
71che solo il fiume mi facea distante,
72per veder meglio ai passi diedi sosta,

73e vidi le fiammelle andar davante,
74lasciando dietro a sé l’aere dipinto,
75e di tratti pennelli avean sembiante;

76sì che lì sopra rimanea distinto
77di sette liste, tutte in quei colori
78onde fa l’arco il Sole e Delia il cinto.

79Questi ostendali in dietro eran maggiori
80che la mia vista; e, quanto a mio avviso,
81diece passi distavan quei di fori.

82Sotto così bel ciel com’ io diviso,
83ventiquattro seniori, a due a due,
84coronati venien di fiordaliso.

85Tutti cantavan: «Benedicta tue
86ne le figlie d’Adamo, e benedette
87sieno in etterno le bellezze tue!».

88Poscia che i fiori e l’altre fresche erbette
89a rimpetto di me da l’altra sponda
90libere fuor da quelle genti elette,

91sì come luce luce in ciel seconda,
92vennero appresso lor quattro animali,
93coronati ciascun di verde fronda.

94Ognuno era pennuto di sei ali;
95le penne piene d’occhi; e li occhi d’Argo,
96se fosser vivi, sarebber cotali.

97A descriver lor forme più non spargo
98rime, lettor; ch’altra spesa mi strigne,
99tanto ch’a questa non posso esser largo;

100ma leggi Ezechïel, che li dipigne
101come li vide da la fredda parte
102venir con vento e con nube e con igne;

103e quali i troverai ne le sue carte,
104tali eran quivi, salvo ch’a le penne
105Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte.

106Lo spazio dentro a lor quattro contenne
107un carro, in su due rote, trïunfale,
108ch’al collo d’un grifon tirato venne.

109Esso tendeva in sù l’una e l’altra ale
110tra la mezzana e le tre e tre liste,
111sì ch’a nulla, fendendo, facea male.

112Tanto salivan che non eran viste;
113le membra d’oro avea quant’ era uccello,
114e bianche l’altre, di vermiglio miste.

115Non che Roma di carro così bello
116rallegrasse Affricano, o vero Augusto,
117ma quel del Sol saria pover con ello;

118quel del Sol che, svïando, fu combusto
119per l’orazion de la Terra devota,
120quando fu Giove arcanamente giusto.

121Tre donne in giro da la destra rota
122venian danzando; l’una tanto rossa
123ch’a pena fora dentro al foco nota;

124l’altr’ era come se le carni e l’ossa
125fossero state di smeraldo fatte;
126la terza parea neve testé mossa;

127e or parëan da la bianca tratte,
128or da la rossa; e dal canto di questa
129l’altre toglien l’andare e tarde e ratte.

130Da la sinistra quattro facean festa,
131in porpore vestite, dietro al modo
132d’una di lor ch’avea tre occhi in testa.

133Appresso tutto il pertrattato nodo
134vidi due vecchi in abito dispari,
135ma pari in atto e onesto e sodo.

136L’un si mostrava alcun de’ famigliari
137di quel sommo Ipocràte che natura
138a li animali fé ch’ell’ ha più cari;

139mostrava l’altro la contraria cura
140con una spada lucida e aguta,
141tal che di qua dal rio mi fé paura.

142Poi vidi quattro in umile paruta;
143e di retro da tutti un vecchio solo
144venir, dormendo, con la faccia arguta.

145E questi sette col primaio stuolo
146erano abitüati, ma di gigli
147dintorno al capo non facëan brolo,

148anzi di rose e d’altri fior vermigli;
149giurato avria poco lontano aspetto
150che tutti ardesser di sopra da’ cigli.

151E quando il carro a me fu a rimpetto,
152un tuon s’udì, e quelle genti degne
153parvero aver l’andar più interdetto,

154fermandosi ivi con le prime insegne.

Her words were done, but without interruption
she sang—like an enamored woman—thus:
“Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata!”

And just as nymphs who used to walk alone
among the woodland shadows, some desiring
to see and some to flee the sun, so she

moved countercurrent as she walked along
the riverbank; and following her short
footsteps with my own steps, I matched her pace.

Her steps and mine together did not sum
one hundred when the banks, still parallel,
so curved about that I was facing east.

Nor had we gone much farther on that path
when she turned fully round toward me and said:
“My brother, look and listen”; and I saw

a sudden radiance that swept across
the mighty forest on all sides—and I
was wondering if lightning had not struck.

But since, when lightning strikes, it stops at once,
while that light, lingering, increased its force,
within my mind I asked: “What thing is this?”

And through the incandescent air there ran
sweet melody; at which, just indignation
made me rebuke the arrogance of Eve

because, where earth and heaven were obedient,
a solitary woman, just created,
found any veil at all beyond endurance;

if she had been devout beneath her veil,
I should have savored those ineffable
delights before, and for a longer time.

While I moved on, completely rapt, among
so many first fruits of eternal pleasure,
and longing for still greater joys, the air

before us altered underneath the green
branches, becoming like an ardent fire,
and now the sweet sound was distinctly song.

O Virgins, sacrosanct, if I have ever,
for your sake, suffered vigils, cold, and hunger,
great need makes me entreat my recompense.

Now Helicon must pour its fountains for me,
Urania must help me with her choir
to put in verses things hard to conceive.

Not far beyond, we made out seven trees
of gold, though the long stretch of air between
those trees and us had falsified their semblance;

but when I’d drawn so close that things perceived
through mingled senses, which delude, did not,
now they were nearer, lose their real features,

the power that offers reason matter judged
those trees to be—what they were—candelabra,
and what those voices sang to be “Hosanna.”

The upper part of those fair candles flamed
more radiantly than the midmonth moon
shines at midnight in an untroubled sky.

Full of astonishment, I turned to my
good Virgil; but he only answered me
with eyes that were no less amazed than mine.

Then I looked at the extraordinary
things that were moving toward us—but so slowly
that even brides just wed would move more quickly.

The woman chided me: “Why are you only
so eager to behold the living lights
and not in seeing what comes after them?”

Then I saw people following those candles,
as if behind their guides, and they wore white—
whiteness that, in this world, has never been.

The water, to my left, reflected flames,
and it reflected, too, my left—hand side
if I gazed into it, as in a mirror.

When I was at a point along my shore
where all that sundered me from them was water,
I stayed my steps in order to see better,

and I could see the candle flames move forward,
leaving the air behind them colored like
the strokes a painter’s brush might have described,

so that the air above that retinue
was streaked with seven bands in every hue
of which the rainbow’s made and Delia’s girdle.

These pennants stretched far back, beyond my vision;
as for the width they filled, I judged the distance
between the outer ones to be ten paces.

Beneath the handsome sky I have described,
twenty—four elders moved on, two by two,
and they had wreaths of lilies on their heads.

And all were singing: “You, among the daughters
of Adam, benedicta are; and may
your beauties blessed be eternally.”

After the flowers and the other fresh
plants facing me, along the farther shore,
had seen those chosen people disappear,

then—as in heaven, star will follow star—
the elders gone, four animals came on;
and each of them had green leaves as his crown;

each had six wings as plumage, and those plumes
were full of eyes; they would be very like
the eyes of Argus, were his eyes alive.

Reader, I am not squandering more rhymes
in order to describe their forms; since I
must spend elsewhere, I can’t be lavish here;

but read Ezekiel, for he has drawn
those animals approaching from the north;
with wings and cloud and fire, he painted them.

And just as you will find them in his pages,
such were they here, except that John’s with me
as to their wings; with him, John disagrees.

The space between the four of them contained
a chariot—triumphal—on two wheels,
tied to a griffin’s neck and drawn by him.

His wings, stretched upward, framed the middle band
with three bands on each outer side, so that,
though he cleaved air, he left the bands intact.

His wings—so high that they were lost to sight;
his limbs were gold as far as he was bird;
the rest of him was white mixed with bloodred.

Not only did no chariot so handsome
gladden Rome’s Africanus or Augustus
himself—even the Sun’s own cannot match it;

the Sun’s—which, gone astray, was burnt to cinders
because Earth offered up her pious prayers,
when Jove, in ways not known to us, was just.

Three circling women, then advancing, danced:
at the right wheel; the first of them, so red
that even in a flame she’d not be noted;

the second seemed as if her flesh and bone
were fashioned out of emerald; the third
seemed to be newly fallen snow. And now

the white one seemed to lead them, now the red;
and from the way in which the leader chanted,
the others took their pace, now slow, now rapid.

Upon the left, four other women, dressed
in crimson, danced, depending on the cadence
of one of them, with three eyes in her head.

Behind all of the group I have described
I saw two elders, different in their dress
but like in manner—grave and decorous.

The first seemed to be one of the disciples
of great Hippocrates, whom nature made
for those who are her dearest living beings;

the other showed an opposite concern—
his sword was bright and sharp, and even on
this near side of the river, I felt fear.

Then I saw four of humble aspect; and,
when all the rest had passed, a lone old man,
his features keen, advanced, as if in sleep.

The clothes these seven wore were like the elders’
in the first file, except that these had no
garlands of lilies round their brow; instead,

roses and other red flowers wreathed their heads;
one seeing them less closely would have sworn
that all of them had flames above their eyebrows.

And when the chariot stood facing me,
I heard a bolt of thunder; and it seemed
to block the path of that good company,

which halted there, its emblems in the lead.

SINGING like unto an enamoured lady
She, with the ending of her words, continued:
_”Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata.”_

And even as Nymphs, that wandered all alone
Among the sylvan shadows, sedulous
One to avoid and one to see the sun,

She then against the stream moved onward, going
Along the bank, and I abreast of her,
Her little steps with little steps attending

Between her steps and mine were not a hundred,
When equally the margins gave a turn,
In such a way, that to the East I faced.

Nor even thus our way continued far
Before the lady wholly turned herself
Unto me, saying, “Brother, look and listen!”

And lo! a sudden lustre ran across
On every side athwart the spacious forest,
Such that it made me doubt if it were lightning.

But since the lightning ceases as it comes,
And that continuing brightened more and more,
Within my thought I said, “What thing is this?”

And a delicious melody there ran
Along the luminous air, whence holy zeal
Made me rebuke the hardihood of Eve;

For there where earth and heaven obedient were,
The woman only, and but just created,
Could not endure to stay ‘neath any veil;

Underneath which had she devoutly stayed,
I sooner should have tasted those delights
Ineffable, and for a longer time.

While ‘mid such manifold first—fruits I walked
Of the eternal pleasure all enrapt,
And still solicitous of more delights,

In front of us like an enkindled fire
Became the air beneath the verdant boughs,
And the sweet sound as singing now was heard.

O Virgins sacrosanct! if ever hunger,
Vigils, or cold for you I have endured,
The occasion spurs me their reward to claim!

Now Helicon must needs pour forth for me,
And with her choir Urania must assist me,
To put in verse things difficult to think.

A little farther on, seven trees of gold
In semblance the long space still intervening
Between ourselves and them did counterfeit;

But when I had approached so near to them
The common object, which the sense deceives,
Lost not by distance any of its marks,

The faculty that lends discourse to reason
Did apprehend that they were candlesticks,
And in the voices of the song “Hosanna!”

Above them flamed the harness beautiful,
Far brighter than the moon in the serene
Of midnight, at the middle of her month.

I turned me round, with admiration filled,
To good Virgilius, and he answered me
With visage no less full of wonderment.

Then back I turned my face to those high things,
Which moved themselves towards us so sedately,
They had been distanced by new—wedded brides.

The lady chid me: “Why dost thou burn only
So with affection for the living lights,
And dost not look at what comes after them ?”

Then saw I people, as behind their leaders,
Coming behind them, garmented in white,
And such a whiteness never was on earth.

The water on my left flank was resplendent,
And back to me reflected my left side,
E’en as a mirror, if I looked therein.

When I upon my margin had such post
That nothing but the stream divided us,
Better to see I gave my steps repose;

And I beheld the flamelets onward go,
Leaving behind themselves the air depicted,
And they of trailing pennons had the semblance,

So that it overhead remained distinct
With sevenfold lists, all of them of the colours
Whence the sun’s bow is made, and Delia’s girdle.

These standards to the rearward longer were
Than was my sight; and, as it seemed to
Ten paces were the outermost apart.

Under so fair a heaven as I describe
The four and twenty Elders, two by two,
Came on incoronate with flower—de—luce.

They all of them were singing: “Blessed thou
Among the daughters of Adam art, and blessed
For evermore shall be thy loveliness.”

After the flowers and other tender grasses
In front of me upon the other margin
Were disencumbered of that race elect,

Even as in heaven star followeth after star,
There came close after them four animals,
Incoronate each one with verdant leaf.

Plumed with six wings was every one of them,
The plumage full of eyes; the eyes of Argus
If they were living would be such as these.

Reader! to trace their forms no more I waste
My rhymes; for other spendings press me so,
That I in this cannot be prodigal.

But read Ezekiel, who depicteth them
As he beheld them from the region cold
Coming with cloud, with whirlwind, and with fire;

And such as thou shalt find them in his pages,
Such were they here; saving that in their plumage
John is with me, and differeth from him.

The interval between these four contained
A chariot triumphal on two wheels,
Which by a Griffin’s neck came drawn along;

And upward he extended both his wings
Between the middle list and three and three,
So that he injured none by cleaving it

So high they rose that they were lost to sight;
His limbs were gold, so far as he was bird,
And white the others with vermilion mingled.

Not only Rome with no such splendid car
E’er gladdened Africanus, or Augustus,
But poor to it that of the Sun would be,—

That of the Sun, which swerving was burnt up
At the importunate orison of Earth,
When Jove was so mysteriously just

Three maidens at the right wheel in a circle
Came onward dancing; one so very red
That in the fire she hardly had been noted.

The second was as if her flesh and bones
Had all been fashioned out of emerald;
The third appeared as snow but newly fallen.

And now they seemed conducted by the white,
Now by the red, and from the song of her
The others took their step, or slow or swift.

Upon the left hand four made holiday
Vested in purple, following the measure
Of one of them with three eyes m her head.

In rear of all the group here treated of
Two old men I beheld, unlike in habit,
But like in gait, each dignified and grave.

One showed himself as one of the disciples
Of that supreme Hippocrates, whom nature
Made for the animals she holds most dear;

Contrary care the other manifested,
With sword so shining and so sharp, it caused
Terror to me on this side of the river.

Thereafter four I saw of humble aspect,
And behind all an aged man alone
Walking in sleep with countenance acute.

And like the foremost company these seven
Were habited; yet of the flower—de—luce
No garland round about the head they wore,

But of the rose. and other flowers vermilion;
At little distance would the sight have sworn
That all were in a flame above their brows.

And when the car was opposite to me
Thunder was heard; and all that folk august
Seemed to have further progress interdicted,

There with the vanward ensigns standing still.

Her words were done, but without interruption
she sang—like an enamored woman—thus:
“Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata!”

And just as nymphs who used to walk alone
among the woodland shadows, some desiring
to see and some to flee the sun, so she

moved countercurrent as she walked along
the riverbank; and following her short
footsteps with my own steps, I matched her pace.

Her steps and mine together did not sum
one hundred when the banks, still parallel,
so curved about that I was facing east.

Nor had we gone much farther on that path
when she turned fully round toward me and said:
“My brother, look and listen”; and I saw

a sudden radiance that swept across
the mighty forest on all sides—and I
was wondering if lightning had not struck.

But since, when lightning strikes, it stops at once,
while that light, lingering, increased its force,
within my mind I asked: “What thing is this?”

And through the incandescent air there ran
sweet melody; at which, just indignation
made me rebuke the arrogance of Eve

because, where earth and heaven were obedient,
a solitary woman, just created,
found any veil at all beyond endurance;

if she had been devout beneath her veil,
I should have savored those ineffable
delights before, and for a longer time.

While I moved on, completely rapt, among
so many first fruits of eternal pleasure,
and longing for still greater joys, the air

before us altered underneath the green
branches, becoming like an ardent fire,
and now the sweet sound was distinctly song.

O Virgins, sacrosanct, if I have ever,
for your sake, suffered vigils, cold, and hunger,
great need makes me entreat my recompense.

Now Helicon must pour its fountains for me,
Urania must help me with her choir
to put in verses things hard to conceive.

Not far beyond, we made out seven trees
of gold, though the long stretch of air between
those trees and us had falsified their semblance;

but when I’d drawn so close that things perceived
through mingled senses, which delude, did not,
now they were nearer, lose their real features,

the power that offers reason matter judged
those trees to be—what they were—candelabra,
and what those voices sang to be “Hosanna.”

The upper part of those fair candles flamed
more radiantly than the midmonth moon
shines at midnight in an untroubled sky.

Full of astonishment, I turned to my
good Virgil; but he only answered me
with eyes that were no less amazed than mine.

Then I looked at the extraordinary
things that were moving toward us—but so slowly
that even brides just wed would move more quickly.

The woman chided me: “Why are you only
so eager to behold the living lights
and not in seeing what comes after them?”

Then I saw people following those candles,
as if behind their guides, and they wore white—
whiteness that, in this world, has never been.

The water, to my left, reflected flames,
and it reflected, too, my left—hand side
if I gazed into it, as in a mirror.

When I was at a point along my shore
where all that sundered me from them was water,
I stayed my steps in order to see better,

and I could see the candle flames move forward,
leaving the air behind them colored like
the strokes a painter’s brush might have described,

so that the air above that retinue
was streaked with seven bands in every hue
of which the rainbow’s made and Delia’s girdle.

These pennants stretched far back, beyond my vision;
as for the width they filled, I judged the distance
between the outer ones to be ten paces.

Beneath the handsome sky I have described,
twenty—four elders moved on, two by two,
and they had wreaths of lilies on their heads.

And all were singing: “You, among the daughters
of Adam, benedicta are; and may
your beauties blessed be eternally.”

After the flowers and the other fresh
plants facing me, along the farther shore,
had seen those chosen people disappear,

then—as in heaven, star will follow star—
the elders gone, four animals came on;
and each of them had green leaves as his crown;

each had six wings as plumage, and those plumes
were full of eyes; they would be very like
the eyes of Argus, were his eyes alive.

Reader, I am not squandering more rhymes
in order to describe their forms; since I
must spend elsewhere, I can’t be lavish here;

but read Ezekiel, for he has drawn
those animals approaching from the north;
with wings and cloud and fire, he painted them.

And just as you will find them in his pages,
such were they here, except that John’s with me
as to their wings; with him, John disagrees.

The space between the four of them contained
a chariot—triumphal—on two wheels,
tied to a griffin’s neck and drawn by him.

His wings, stretched upward, framed the middle band
with three bands on each outer side, so that,
though he cleaved air, he left the bands intact.

His wings—so high that they were lost to sight;
his limbs were gold as far as he was bird;
the rest of him was white mixed with bloodred.

Not only did no chariot so handsome
gladden Rome’s Africanus or Augustus
himself—even the Sun’s own cannot match it;

the Sun’s—which, gone astray, was burnt to cinders
because Earth offered up her pious prayers,
when Jove, in ways not known to us, was just.

Three circling women, then advancing, danced:
at the right wheel; the first of them, so red
that even in a flame she’d not be noted;

the second seemed as if her flesh and bone
were fashioned out of emerald; the third
seemed to be newly fallen snow. And now

the white one seemed to lead them, now the red;
and from the way in which the leader chanted,
the others took their pace, now slow, now rapid.

Upon the left, four other women, dressed
in crimson, danced, depending on the cadence
of one of them, with three eyes in her head.

Behind all of the group I have described
I saw two elders, different in their dress
but like in manner—grave and decorous.

The first seemed to be one of the disciples
of great Hippocrates, whom nature made
for those who are her dearest living beings;

the other showed an opposite concern—
his sword was bright and sharp, and even on
this near side of the river, I felt fear.

Then I saw four of humble aspect; and,
when all the rest had passed, a lone old man,
his features keen, advanced, as if in sleep.

The clothes these seven wore were like the elders’
in the first file, except that these had no
garlands of lilies round their brow; instead,

roses and other red flowers wreathed their heads;
one seeing them less closely would have sworn
that all of them had flames above their eyebrows.

And when the chariot stood facing me,
I heard a bolt of thunder; and it seemed
to block the path of that good company,

which halted there, its emblems in the lead.

SINGING like unto an enamoured lady
She, with the ending of her words, continued:
_”Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata.”_

And even as Nymphs, that wandered all alone
Among the sylvan shadows, sedulous
One to avoid and one to see the sun,

She then against the stream moved onward, going
Along the bank, and I abreast of her,
Her little steps with little steps attending

Between her steps and mine were not a hundred,
When equally the margins gave a turn,
In such a way, that to the East I faced.

Nor even thus our way continued far
Before the lady wholly turned herself
Unto me, saying, “Brother, look and listen!”

And lo! a sudden lustre ran across
On every side athwart the spacious forest,
Such that it made me doubt if it were lightning.

But since the lightning ceases as it comes,
And that continuing brightened more and more,
Within my thought I said, “What thing is this?”

And a delicious melody there ran
Along the luminous air, whence holy zeal
Made me rebuke the hardihood of Eve;

For there where earth and heaven obedient were,
The woman only, and but just created,
Could not endure to stay ‘neath any veil;

Underneath which had she devoutly stayed,
I sooner should have tasted those delights
Ineffable, and for a longer time.

While ‘mid such manifold first—fruits I walked
Of the eternal pleasure all enrapt,
And still solicitous of more delights,

In front of us like an enkindled fire
Became the air beneath the verdant boughs,
And the sweet sound as singing now was heard.

O Virgins sacrosanct! if ever hunger,
Vigils, or cold for you I have endured,
The occasion spurs me their reward to claim!

Now Helicon must needs pour forth for me,
And with her choir Urania must assist me,
To put in verse things difficult to think.

A little farther on, seven trees of gold
In semblance the long space still intervening
Between ourselves and them did counterfeit;

But when I had approached so near to them
The common object, which the sense deceives,
Lost not by distance any of its marks,

The faculty that lends discourse to reason
Did apprehend that they were candlesticks,
And in the voices of the song “Hosanna!”

Above them flamed the harness beautiful,
Far brighter than the moon in the serene
Of midnight, at the middle of her month.

I turned me round, with admiration filled,
To good Virgilius, and he answered me
With visage no less full of wonderment.

Then back I turned my face to those high things,
Which moved themselves towards us so sedately,
They had been distanced by new—wedded brides.

The lady chid me: “Why dost thou burn only
So with affection for the living lights,
And dost not look at what comes after them ?”

Then saw I people, as behind their leaders,
Coming behind them, garmented in white,
And such a whiteness never was on earth.

The water on my left flank was resplendent,
And back to me reflected my left side,
E’en as a mirror, if I looked therein.

When I upon my margin had such post
That nothing but the stream divided us,
Better to see I gave my steps repose;

And I beheld the flamelets onward go,
Leaving behind themselves the air depicted,
And they of trailing pennons had the semblance,

So that it overhead remained distinct
With sevenfold lists, all of them of the colours
Whence the sun’s bow is made, and Delia’s girdle.

These standards to the rearward longer were
Than was my sight; and, as it seemed to
Ten paces were the outermost apart.

Under so fair a heaven as I describe
The four and twenty Elders, two by two,
Came on incoronate with flower—de—luce.

They all of them were singing: “Blessed thou
Among the daughters of Adam art, and blessed
For evermore shall be thy loveliness.”

After the flowers and other tender grasses
In front of me upon the other margin
Were disencumbered of that race elect,

Even as in heaven star followeth after star,
There came close after them four animals,
Incoronate each one with verdant leaf.

Plumed with six wings was every one of them,
The plumage full of eyes; the eyes of Argus
If they were living would be such as these.

Reader! to trace their forms no more I waste
My rhymes; for other spendings press me so,
That I in this cannot be prodigal.

But read Ezekiel, who depicteth them
As he beheld them from the region cold
Coming with cloud, with whirlwind, and with fire;

And such as thou shalt find them in his pages,
Such were they here; saving that in their plumage
John is with me, and differeth from him.

The interval between these four contained
A chariot triumphal on two wheels,
Which by a Griffin’s neck came drawn along;

And upward he extended both his wings
Between the middle list and three and three,
So that he injured none by cleaving it

So high they rose that they were lost to sight;
His limbs were gold, so far as he was bird,
And white the others with vermilion mingled.

Not only Rome with no such splendid car
E’er gladdened Africanus, or Augustus,
But poor to it that of the Sun would be,—

That of the Sun, which swerving was burnt up
At the importunate orison of Earth,
When Jove was so mysteriously just

Three maidens at the right wheel in a circle
Came onward dancing; one so very red
That in the fire she hardly had been noted.

The second was as if her flesh and bones
Had all been fashioned out of emerald;
The third appeared as snow but newly fallen.

And now they seemed conducted by the white,
Now by the red, and from the song of her
The others took their step, or slow or swift.

Upon the left hand four made holiday
Vested in purple, following the measure
Of one of them with three eyes m her head.

In rear of all the group here treated of
Two old men I beheld, unlike in habit,
But like in gait, each dignified and grave.

One showed himself as one of the disciples
Of that supreme Hippocrates, whom nature
Made for the animals she holds most dear;

Contrary care the other manifested,
With sword so shining and so sharp, it caused
Terror to me on this side of the river.

Thereafter four I saw of humble aspect,
And behind all an aged man alone
Walking in sleep with countenance acute.

And like the foremost company these seven
Were habited; yet of the flower—de—luce
No garland round about the head they wore,

But of the rose. and other flowers vermilion;
At little distance would the sight have sworn
That all were in a flame above their brows.

And when the car was opposite to me
Thunder was heard; and all that folk august
Seemed to have further progress interdicted,

There with the vanward ensigns standing still.