Paradiso -- Canto I

The Ascent

 

Notes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 The poet invokes the sun-god Apollo as the inspirer of poetry. His shrine is at Delphi (l. 32).

16 Parnassus had twin peaks, one sacred to the Muses and the other to Apollo; it is called Cyrrha (l. 36).

 

20 The satyr Marsyas, defeated in a musical contest with Apollo, was pulled out of his skin in punishment (Metamorphoses VI, 382-400).

 

 

 

 

 

32 Daphne, daughter of Peneus, was changed into a laurel tree to escape from the passionate Apollo. The laurel crown honors the poet and the conqueror (l. 29).

36 The top of the Cyrrha mountain was Apollo’s domain.

37 The sun, rising on the eastern horizon, crosses the other three circles of the equator, the ecliptic (its path through the zodiac), and the equinoctial colure (a great circle of the celestial sphere passing through the poles and equinoxes). The three crosses, like a Calvary scene, happen at the spring equinox when the sun arises in Aries (l. 41). It is still high noon on Wednesday of Easter week (ll. 43-45).

48 The eagle was believed to be the only living being capable of staring directly at the sun. See B. Latini, Tesoretto III, 8; Aristotle, De animalium, 34; and Dante, Convivio II, xiii, 15, as well as Canto XX, ll. 31-33.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

68 Glaucus the fisherman watched the fish he had caught spring to life in the grass, ate some of the herbage, and became a sea-god (Metamorphoses XIII, 898-968).

73 The poet echoes Saint Paul’s words about his own ascent to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

123 The First Mover or Primum Mobile, the highest and swiftest of the nine spheres, orbits the Empyrean or pure heaven which is beyond space and motion.

          The glory of Him who sets all things in motion
          Cleaves through the universe, and it flames again
          In different places with a different force.
 
          I have been to that heaven where His light
5        Beams brightest and seen things that none, returning,
          Has the knowledge or the power to repeat,
 
          Because, as it draws near to its desire,
          Our intellect sinks down to such a depth
          That memory cannot trace its way back there.
 
10       Nevertheless, whatever I could treasure
          Up in my mind about that sacred kingdom
          Shall now become the subject of my song.
 
          O good Apollo, for this final task,
          Make me such a vessel of your virtues
15       I may deserve the gift of your dear laurel.
 
          So far, one summit of Parnassus was
          Enough for me, but now I need both peaks
          On entering the arena that remains.
 
          Come into my breast and breathe in me
20       As you did when you drew Marsyas out
          From the sheath of his own living flesh.
 
          O divine power, but lend yourself to me
          So I may show the shadow of that blessed
          Kingdom which is embedded in my brain,
 
25       You’ll see me come to your beloved tree,
          And crown me then with those same laurel leaves
          Of which this theme and you shall make me worthy.
 
          So few times, father, is any laurel gathered
          For the triumph of a caesar or a poet —
30       Through sin and shame of human willfulness —
 
          That the Peneian branch should sprout deep joy
          To the rejoicing Delphic deity
          When it inspires anyone with longing.
 
          A little spark is followed by huge fires:
35       Perhaps, after me, prayers will be so raised
          With stronger voices that Cyrrha may respond.
 
          The lamp of the universe rises for mortals
          Through various passages, but from that point
          Which joins four circles with three crosses
 
40       It comes out on a more propitious course,
          With happier stars to temper and seal tight
          The wax of the world more molded to its imprint.
 
          Almost at this outset day had broken there
          And evening here, and all that hemisphere
45       Was whitening while this other side grew dark,
 
          When I saw Beatrice turned to her left hand
          And looking straight into the sun: never
          Had an eagle so fixed his sight upon it!
 
          And as a second ray will break out from
50       The reflection of the first and soar up again,
          Just like a pilgrim yearning to return,
 
          So by her action, streaming through my eyes
          Into my imagination, my act took shape:
          Past mortal might my eyes stared at the sun.
 
55       Much is permitted to our faculties there
          That’s not permitted here, thanks to the place
          Made for the human race as its true dwelling.
 
          I did not long endure it, yet not so brief
          But that I noticed sparks blaze all about,
60       Like iron brought out molten from the forge.
 
          And at once it seemed that day was added to
          The day, as if He who has the power to do so
          Had decked the heavens with another sun.
 
          Beatrice stood with her eyes riveted
65       Wholly on the eternal spheres, while I
          Fixed my eyes, drawn from the sky, on hers.
 
          So gazing on her I inwardly became
          Like Glaucus when he tasted of the grass
          Which made him consort of the other sea-gods.
 
70       This passing-beyond-the human cannot be
          Expressed in words; let the example then
          Serve him to whom grace grants the experience.
 
          If I were only that soul in me which you
          Created last, O Love that rules the heavens,
75      You know, who lifted me up with your light.
 
          When that revolving, which you make unending
          By longing for you, captured my attention
          With the harmony you tune and modulate,
 
          So much of heaven then seemed to me aflame
80       With fire from the sun that rain or river
          Never formed a lake that spread so wide.
 
          The strangeness of the sound and the bright light
          Inflamed in me an ardor to know their cause,
          Sharper than I had ever felt before.
 
85       Then she, who saw me as I see myself,
          To still my agitated mind, opened
          Her lips before I opened mine to ask,
 
          And she began, "You make yourself so dull
          With false imaginings that you don’t notice
90       What you would see if you could shake them off.
 
          "You are not now on earth, as you believe;
          But lightning, fleeing its place on high, never
          Plummeted faster than you rise up to yours."
 
          If I was stripped of my first puzzlement
95       By these brief words which she flashed by her smile,
          I now grew more entangled with new doubts,
 
          And I said, "You have set my mind at rest
          On one deep wonder, but now I wonder how
          I here can pass up through these airy bodies."
 
100     After a sigh of pity at these words,
          She turned her eyes toward me with the look
          A mother might give to a delirious child,
 
          And she began, "All things that are have order
          Among themselves, and it is this their form
105      That makes the universe a mirror of God.
 
          "In this the higher creatures see the stamp
          Of the eternal power, which is the goal
          For which the rule I mentioned has been made.
 
          "In the order that I describe, all natures
110      Arrange themselves by different destinations,
          In varying nearness to their single Source.
 
          "This is the cause they move to different harbors
          On the great sea of being, and each one
          Has instinct given it to bear it on.
 
115     "This one draws fire upward toward the moon,
          This is the force that moves in mortal hearts,
          This binds the earth together and makes it one.
 
          "This bow shoots at the mark not only for
          Created things that lack intelligence
120      But for those who have intellect and love.
 
          "The Providence that sets all this in order
          With its light makes that heaven always still
          Within which whirls the fastest-moving sphere,
 
          "And to it now, as to a destined spot,
125      The power of that bowstring bears us on,
          Aiming what it propels at a glad target.
 
          "It is true that as the form all too often
          Does not respond to the intent of art,
          Since the material is deaf to summons,
 
130     "So sometimes the creature wanders from its course,
          For even though impelled toward the target,
          It has the power to swerve some other way
 
          "(Just as fire from a cloud can be observed
          To fall downward), if its first impulse,
135      Lured by false pleasure, bend it to the earth.
 
          "If I judge rightly, you should no more marvel
          At your ascent than at a stream that falls
          From the top of a mountain to the bottom.
 
          "The wonder would be if, when freed of hindrance,
140      You should have settled down and stayed below,
          As though a live flame on the earth kept still."
 
          With that she turned her gaze once more to heaven.
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