Monday, December 23, 2013


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.”      


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