Monday, December 23, 2013


Chapter 10: To the First Terrace

And so the angel warder let us through
            that gate locked fast to those of evil will.
            We climbed a narrow track in the cleft hill,                                          3

nor did I dare look round when at my back
            the gate shut with a clang that shook the ground.
            Our steep path zig-zagged sharply left and right.                                6

Said Virgil, “This will test your climbing skill,
so concentrate,” I did. It was near noon
            when I emerged from that tight needle’s eye.                                       9

Footsore and tired I stood beside my guide,
like him, unsure of where to go again:
            sheer drop behind, on each side empty plain,                                     12

ahead a sheer cliff three men’s height away.                          
            We had not moved a step before I knew
            the cliff we faced was marble, pure and white,                                   15

marvelously carved with shapes livelier
and lovelier than a human sculptor
            or nature too could ever have devised.                                               18

On going near we recognized just One
           could make them so. We saw the angel there
           announce the coming of the Prince of Peace                                     21

for whom man-kind has wept through centuries.
           He seemed to say “Hail Mary, full of grace!”
           and the humility of her reply,                                                              24

“Here am I, God’s servant,” glowed in her face                                
            so I believed I heard her with my ears.
“Look over here,” my guide said pointing to                         27

images of a more crowded scene:
            oxen pulling a cart holding the ark
            brought by King David to Jerusalem.                                                 30
Seven jubilant choirs surrounded it.                                                  
           My eyes declared, “they sing!” my ears, “they don’t!”,
           and where, in marble, clouds of incense rose                          33          

 eyes disagreed with nose. Before the ark,                                         
            the psalmist monarch with his robe tucked up
            danced like a happy clown. His wife looked down                            36

from a high window, smiling scornfully
            at his humiliating lack of pride.
            Beside this was another crowded scene:                                              39

Emperor Trajan riding forth to war                                                 
            with knights and retinue. Eagles above
            flapped gold wings. A poor widow clinging                                       42
to his bridle cried, “Sir, my murdered son                                         
             should be avenged!” “He’ll be, when I return.”
            “But if you don’t?” “My heir will do what’s right.”                         45
“If you don’t do what’s needed now,” cried she,                               
            “then why should he?” “True!” Trajan said, halting,                        
            “none should delay just acts.” Justice was done.                                48

Our best Pope since Saint Peter, Gregory,
             esteemed this just humility as proof
             of Trajan’s noble Christianity,                                                            51

 so he is now redeemed in Paradise.                                                  
            These splendid visions of true humbleness
            pleased me by showing truth and beauty one,                                    54

 till I heard Virgil murmur, “Here come some                                        
             who may show a stair to the greater heights.”
             Dear reader, I was eager for new sights                                            57

that teach how God gets back what is His due–                                        
            news that should aid and not discourage you.
            I looked to see some kind of cavalcade,                                             60
then staring said, “I see no folk at all!
            Here’s a slow avalanche of heavy stones
            advancing on the ground. Sir, please explain.”                                    63

Said he, “Stoop down and look. Under those weights                                   
           see once proud sinners crawling on their knees.”
           I cried out, “O you poor ones who believed                                       66

that wealth and power could magnify your worth!
           Now crushed to earth, at last you will discard
           your pride, a grubby caterpillar shell                                                   69

splitting to loose angelic butterfly                             
            soaring to God upon His judgement day.”                                         
            Brackets supporting ceilings on high walls                                        72

are sometimes carved like men, knees squeezed to chest.
            Those here were just like that, sorely oppressed,
            and the most patient ghosts were weeping most.      75                            

Their state was nearly more than they could bear.


Chapter 9: The Gateway

Upon the little valley’s verdant floor
I, Virgil, Sordello, Nino the judge
and Conrad Malespino spoke no more                                               3
and I, imperfect man, slept deep until
that early hour when swallows, sensing dawn,
   mournfully cheep and sleepers, not disturbed                               6

by dreams of bodily and mental stress
sometimes see visions of pure blessedness.
A golden-feathered eagle seemed to be                                               9

hovering over my head with wings outspread.
I thought, “That bird seized Ganymede to be
butler in Heaven, so very fair was he.                                      12

He won’t want me!” Then like a thunderbolt
it swooped and, snatching, soared with me up, up,
up to the height of Empyrean fire                                                      15

where the imagined heat fused us in one       
before at last (of course) wakening me. 
The mother of Achilles carried him                                                    18

 asleep from Crete to a Greek island where
his opening eyes knew nothing he could see.                            
Two hours after day dawned, I awoke like that                                 21

 cold, weak, and staring at the oceans shore
far, far below. My comforter and guide
seated at my side said, “Don’t be afraid.                                            24

Your state is excellent. Before day broke,
as you were sleeping upon the flowers
that clothe the lower dell, a lady came.                                 27

She said, ‘I am Lucy, here for this man
to take him, sleeping, further on his way.’
Sordello stayed with other noble souls                                               30

as, when this clear day dawned, she took you up,
I following until she laid you here
and pointed to that gate before she left.”                                33

Made confident once more I rose to face
the rampart of the mountainside, my guide
leading me up to a much higher place                                     36

than we had been before. Reader, please know
I must rise to a higher theme, sustained
by greater art. We reached what at first seemed                                 39

a cleft in that rock wall, but was a gate
above three differently coloured steps.
On the thresh-hold a silent warder sat,                                               42

his face so bright I could not bear the sight,
and in his hand he held a naked sword
I also tried to look upon in vain,                                                         45

for it reflected light so dazzlingly.
“Where are you from? What do you seek?” he said.
 “If no Heavenly escort brings you here,                                            48

beware! This upward climb may do you harm.”
 “A celestial maid,” my master said,
 “recently pointed out to me this gate.”                                             51

“She did so for your good. Come then, and climb,”
the courteous warder said, so we stepped
onto the white marble, which was so smooth                             54
it mirrored me exactly as I am.
The second was dark purple, rough and cracked
throughout it’s length and breadth. The top-most step        57

resembled porphyry, as red as blood
spurting from a vein. On this God’s angel
rested his feet, seated on a thresh-hold                                               60

which seemed to be of hardest adamant.
By these three steps my leader drew me up,
saying, “Now ask him to withdraw the bolt.”                           63

I threw myself down at his holy feet,
and after beating on my breast three times
begged him to mercifully let me through.                               66

With his sword point he wrote upon my brow
seven Ps, then said, “When you are inside
these will be washed away.” Out of his robe,                                    69

of ashen colour he removed two keys,
one gold, one silver. Turning in the lock
the white first, then the yellow, he explained,                             72

“When both keys do not turn the gate stays shut.
            One is more precious but the other needs
more skill, more wisdom, to make it unlock.                               75

Peter said as he gave them, ‘If you err,
do it on the side of mercy to those
prostrate before your feet.’ So enter now,                                         78

but remember, never dare to look back.
Those who do are expelled.” When Caesar stole
the Tarpeian temple’s gold, there went up                                         81

a deafening roar, less loud than that of
the door’s massive hinges grinding around.
Entering, I heard the Te Deum start.                                                 84

Sweet voices blending well with organ chords
rose and fell in our God’s mightiest hymn,
words lost in mirthful tune or ringing clear,                                87

sounds I love most of those I hear on earth.


Chapter 8: The Vestibule

When church bells toll the knell of parting day
          the traveller, whether on land or sea
          remembers home and loved ones far away.                                  3

While pondering Sordello’s final word
          I saw a kingly soul below arise,
          showing by gestures that he would be heard.                               6

Joining his palms he lifted them in prayer,
          and gazing to the east, began to sing
          sweetly the evening hymn to heavenly light.                               9

The rest melodiously joined the hymn
         while also gazing on the bright clear stars
         which were, I noticed, starting to appear.                                   12
Reader, sharpen your mind’s eye to the truth                                     
          I tried to show you through my poem’s veil
          which should be thinnest, most transparent here.                      15

The noble company fell silent, all                                                    
         looking up humbly and expectantly, 
         to where I saw descending through the air                                  18

a pair of angels holding shining swords                                      
         shortened because their points were broken off.
         Their wings and robes were green as fresh spring leaves.            21

One stopped above our heads, the other stood
         upon the mountainside just opposite.
         Though I could clearly see their flaxen hair,                                24

the brightness of their eyes quite dazzled me.                                      
         Sordello said, “Mary Mother of God
         sends them to guard the valley at this time            27                                

from the serpent, our spiteful enemy.”
         Unsure from where he’d come, I pressed myself
         against the trusty shoulder of my guide                       30                            

“We will descend and greet some noble shades,”
         Sordello said, “ for speech with you will please
         that company.” By three steps I went down                             33          

to where I saw (though air was darkening)
         a man whose face I knew, as he knew mine—
         noble judge Nino. That he was not damned                                 36

delighted me. “When did you land upon
         this island’s shore?” he asked. “At dawn today,”
         I said, “although I did not cross the sea.                                      39

I am not dead, but came on foot through Hell.”
        He started back, then said to someone near,
       “Arise Conrad! See what God’s grace has willed!”                      42

then said to me, “By that great gratitude
        you owe to Him whose deepest purposes
        cannot be known, when back in Italy,                                          45

beg my child Joan to pray God for my soul.
       Heaven will hear the prayers of innocence.
       My wife, who wed again, loves me no more,         48                                  

showing how soon the flame of women’s love
       dies lacking sight and touch to kindle it.
       She cannot long enjoy her present mate.                                       51                  

Her husband flaunts a viper on his shield.
       Carved on her tomb it will not look as fair
       as would the chanticleer she’d had from me.”                               54                         

The indignation showing in his face
       came from the heart, but I was staring up
       to that high centre where stars move most slow.                          57

My leader asked, “What are you seeing there?”
      “Three starry torches new to me,” said I,
       “with which the southern sky is all aglow.”                                  60

Said he, “The four great stars you saw at dawn
        have sunk from view and are replaced by these.”
        And it was then Sordello cried aloud,                                          63

“See! There’s the enemy!” pointing to where
         the valley’s side dipped low, for there a snake
         was sliding in, maybe that subtle one                                          66

who had first given bitter food to Eve.
         Through grass and flowers it undulated on,
         an evil streak, twisting at times its neck                                      69

to lick its back with flickering forked tongue.
         So swiftly did Heaven’s hawks swoop down at him
         I only heard their green wings cleave the air                               72

before that serpent fled and they returned.
         He who the judge had called to look at me
         had not since looked away. Approaching now                          75

he said, “May your will to ascend this hill
          not fail before you reach the greatest height.
          If you have word of Valdimagra or                                            78
 places near by, then tell it to me please
         for there I once was great, known by the name
         my father had, Conrad Malaspina.                                            81

 My excessive love for my family
          here must be purified.” “I was never
          in your land,” I replied, “but in Europe                                    84

where are you not renowned? Guilty tongues fail
         to slander your name, for it still resounds
         for generosity of purse and sword–                                           87

a family famous for going straight.”
         He said, “After some years your fate will be
         to find by experience that your view                                          90

of my family still remains true.”