Dante states his supreme theme as Paradise itself and invokes the aid not only of the Muses but of Apollo.
Dante and Beatrice are in the Earthly Paradise. Dante sees Beatrice turn her eyes to stare straight into the sun and reflexively imitates her gesture. At once it is as if a second sun had been created, its light dazzling his senses, and Dante feels the ineffable change of his mortal soul into Godliness.
Beatrice must explain to him what he himself has not realized: that he and Beatrice are soaring toward the height of Heaven at an incalculable speed. So they pass through the Sphere of Fire, and so Dante first hears the Music of the Spheres.
Beatrice stared at the eternal spheres
entranced, unmoving; and I looked away
from the sun's height to fix my eyes on hers.
Canto 1, verse 64-66
Dante and Beatrice are soaring to the Sphere of the Moon at a speed approaching that of light. Dante warns back the shallow reader: only those who have eaten of the knowledge of God may hope to follow him into the last reaches of his infinite voyage, for it will reveal such wonders as only faith can grasp.
He and Beatrice enter the Sphere of the Moon and pass into the substances of the moon as light into water, as God incarnated himself into man, or as a saved soul enters into God. Dante does not understand how there can appear on the diamond-smooth surface of the moon those markings we know as the "Man in the Moon". Beatrice asks for his explanation, refutes it, and proceeds to explain the truth of the moon's markings.
From this source only, not from rare and dense,
comes that by which one light and another differs--
the formal principle whose excellence,
conforming to its own purposes, makes appear
those markings you observe as dark and clear.
Canto 2, verse 147-148
As Dante is about to speak to Beatrice he sees the dim traceries of human faces and takes them to be reflections, he turns to see what souls are being so reflected. Beatrice explains that those pallid images are the souls themselves. They are the "Inconstant", the souls of those who registered holy vows in Heaven, but who broke or recanted them.
Among them Picardia Donati identifies herself, and then identifies the Empress Constance. Both had taken vows as nuns but were forces to break them in order to contract a political marriage.
As in clear glass when it is polished bright,
or in a still and limpid pool whose waters
are not so deep that the bottom is lost from sight,
a footnote of our lineaments will show,
so pallid that our pupils could as soon
make out a pearl upon a milk-white brow--
Canto 3, verse 14-15
The Spirit identifies itself as the soul of the Emperor Justinian and proceeds to recount its life on earth. It proceeds next to a discourse on the history of the Roman Eagle.
Caesar I was, Justinian I am.
By the will of the First Love, which I now feel,
I pruned the law of waste, excess, and sham.
Canto 6, verse 10
Thomas Aquinas has finished speaking. Now, anticipating the wish Dante has not yet realized is his own, Beatrice begs the double circle of Philosophers and Theologians to explain to Dante the state in which the blessed will find themselves after the Resurrection of the Flesh.
As Solomon finishes his discourse and the souls about him cry "Amen!" Dante becomes aware of a third circle of souls, higher and more radiant even than the first two. Its radiance dawns slowly and indistinctly at first, and then suddenly bursts upon him. Only then does he realize that he and Beatrice have been ascending and that he has entered the Fifth Sphere, Mars. There Dante beholds, shining through the sphere of Mars, the vision of Christ on the Cross.
And here memory
outruns my powers. How shall I write
that from that cross there glowed a vision of Christ?
What metaphor is worthy of that sight?
Canto 14, verse 104-105
Beatrice and Cacciaguida already know what question is burning in Dante's mind, but Beatrice nevertheless urges him to speak it, that by practising Heavenly discourse he be better able to speak to men when he returns to Earth. So urged, Dante asks Cacciaguida to make clear the recurring dark prophesies of Dante's future.
Cacciaguida details Dante's coming banishment from Florence, identifies the patrons Dante will find, and reassures Dante of his future fame. He warns Dante not to become bitter in adversity assuring him that the Divine Comedy, once it becomes known, will outlive the proudest of the Florentines and bring shame to their evil memories for ages to come.
Not in dark oracles like those that glued
the foolish like limed birds, before the Lamb
that takes our sins away suffered the rood;
but in clear words and the punctilious style
of ordered thought, that father-love replied,
concealed in and revealed by his own smile:
Canto 17, verse 35-36
Beatrice comforts Dante, who is pondering the bitter and the sweet of Cacciaguida's prophesy, then instructs him to turn back to Cacciaguida, who proceeds to name among the souls who form the cross of Mars the "Great Warriors of God". They flash like shooting stars along the arms of the cross.
Dante turns back to Beatrice, sees her grow yet more beautiful, and knows they have made the ascent to the Sixth Sphere. He sees the pale glow of Jupiter replace the red glow of Mars and in that silvery sheen he sees the vision of Earthly Justice, a spectacular arrangement of lights that spell out a message, letter by letter, and then form as an Eagle (The Empire) ornamented by glowing lilies (France).
79 CROSS OF JUST RULERS
Look at the arms of the cross. As the swift flame
within a flame does, so, within that choir,
shall flash the splendor of each soul I name.
Canto 18, verse 34
And as each took its place in that still choir
I saw the head and shoulders of an eagle
appear in the fixed pattern of that fire.
Canto 18, verse 106-107
Beatrice and Dante enter the Sphere of Saturn. Beatrice does not smile in her new bliss to announce their arrival, for her radiance would then be such that Dante's mortal senses would be consumed, as Semele was consumed by the Godhead of Jupiter. Rather, Beatrice announces that they are there and commands Dante to look into the crystalline substance of that Heaven for the vision he will see of the Souls of the Contemplative.
Dante turns and beholds a vision of a Golden Ladder on which countless splendors arise and descend wheeling like birds in flight. That host of the blessed descends only as far as a given rung, but one radiance among them draws closer to Dante and indicates by its radiance that it is eager to bring him joy. It is the soul of Peter Damiano, a Doctor of the Church, renowned for a severely ascetic life even in high church office. Peter Damiano explains to Dante that the Mystery of Predestination is beyond the reach of all but God, and that men should not presume to grasp it. He concludes with a denunciation of Papal corruption, and at his words, all the souls of Saturn fly down to form a ring around him and thunder forth Heaven's righteous indignation at evildoers, his senses reeling at that thunderclap of sound.
81 LADDER OF CONTEMPLATION
Within the crystal that bears round the world
the name of its great king in that golden age
when evil's flag had not yet been unfurled,
like polished gold ablaze in full sunlight
I saw a ladder rise so far above my
it soared beyond the reaches of my sight.
Canto 21, verse 28-29
Round him they came to rest, and all burst forth
in unison of love: a cry so loud
the like of it has not been heard on earth.
Nor could I understand it, for the peal
of that ominous thunder made my senses reel.
Canto 21, verse 140-142
Dante's senses still reeling, he turns to Beatrice, who reassures him and prophesies that he will live to see God's vengeance descend on the corrupters of the Church. She then calls his attention to the other souls of this sphere. Looking up, Dante sees a hundred radiant globes, one of which draws near and identifies itself as the heavenly splendor that had been St. Benedict.
Benedict explains that the Golden Ladder, like the contemplative life, soars to the summit of God's glory, and he laments that so few of his Benedictine monks remain eager to put the world behind them and begin the ascent, for they are lost in the degeneracy of bad days. Yet God has worked greater wonders than would be required to restore the purity of the church.
So saying, Benedict is gathered into his heavenly choir of radiances, and the whole company ascends to the top of the sky and out of sight.
Beatrice then makes a sign and Dante feels himself making the ascent to the Eighth Sphere, the Sphere of the Fixed Stars. But before the souls of that Sphere are revealed to him, Beatrice bids him look back to see how far she has raised him. Dante looks down through the Seven Spheres in their glory, seeing all the heavens at a glance, and the earth as an insignificant speck far below. Then turning from it as from a puny thing, he turns his eyes back to the eyes of Beatrice.
And turning there with the eternal Twins,
I saw the dusty little threshing ground
that makes us ravenous for our mad sins,
saw it from mountain crest to lowest shore.
Then I turned my eyes to Beauty's eyes once more.
Canto 22, verse 151-153
Beatrice stares expectantly toward that part of the sky where the Sun is at its highest point, and Dante, moved by the joy of her expectation, follows her look. Almost at once there descends from the highest Heaven the radiant substance of the vision of Christ Triumphant as it rays forth on the garden of all those souls who have been redeemed through Christ. The splendor too much for his senses, Dante swoons. He is recalled to himself by Beatrice and discovers that, newly strengthened as he has been by the vision of Christ, he is able to look upon her smile of bliss.
Beatrice urges him to look at the Garden of Christ's Triumph, upon the Rose of the Virgin Mary and the Lilies of the Apostles. Christ, taking mercy on Dante's feeble powers, has withdrawn from direct view and now rays down from above.
Dante fixes his eyes on the brightest splendor (the Virgin Mary) and sees a crown of flame descend to summon her back to the Empyrean. It is the Angel Gabriel. So summoned, Mary ascends to where her son is, and the flames of the souls yearn higher toward her. There, among the souls that remain below, Dante identifies St. Peter.
The Rose in which the Word became incarnate
is there. There are the lilies by whose odor
men found the road that evermore runs straight.
Canto 23, verse 73-74
Here sits in triumph under the lofty Son
of God and the Virgin Mary in His triumph,
and in the company of everyone
crowned from the New or the Old Consistory,
the soul that holds the great keys to such glory.
Canto 23, verse 136-137
Christ and Mary having ascended to the Empyrean, St. Peter remains as the chief soul of the Garden of Christ's Triumph. Beatrice addresses the souls in Dante's behalf, and they, in their joy, form into a dazzling vertical wheel of spinning radiances.
Beatrice then begs St. Peter to conduct an examination of Dante's Faith. St. Peter thereupon questions Dante on the nature of faith, the possession of faith, the source of faith, the proof of the truth of faith, man's means of knowing that the miracles of faith actually took place, and finally on the contents of Christian faith.
Dante answers eagerly, as would a willing candidate being examined by his learned master. The examination concluded, St. Peter shows his pleasure by dancing three times around Dante.
Three times it danced round Beatrice to a strain
so heavenly that I have not the power
so much as to imagine it again.
Canto 24, verse 22-24
Dante, blessed by St. John himself as a reward for his labors and his hope, declares that if his poem may serve to soften his sentence of exile from Florence, he will return to his baptismal font at San Giovanni and there place on his own head the poet's laurel wreath. Such is one of the great hopes of his poem, and on that note St. James, the Apostle of Hope, shows himself.
Beatrice begs James to conduct the Examination of Hope and she herself, in answer to the first question, testifies to Dante's possession of Hope. Dante then replies on the nature of hope, on the content of his hope, and on the sources of hope.
The examination triumphantly concluded, a cry in praise of the grace of hope rings through Paradise, and thereupon St. John the Apostle appears. Dante stares into John's radiance hoping to see the lineaments of his mortal body. The voice of John, the Apostle of Love, calls to him that what he seeks is not there, and when Dante looks away he discovers he has been blinded by the radiance of Love.
At times, on earth, I have seen a mating dove
alight by another, and each turn to each,
circling and murmuring to express their love.
Canto 25, verse 19-21
Ah, what a surge of feeling swept my mind
when I turned away an instant from such splendor
to look at Beatrice, only to find
I could not see her with my dazzled eyes,
thought I stood near her and in Paradise!
Canto 25, verse 138-139
John assures Dante that Beatrice will restore his sight. Dante expresses his willingness to await her will since he knows her to be Love. John, thereupon, begins the Examination of Love, asking Dante to explain how he came into the possession of Love, and what drove him to seek it. He then asks Dante to describe the intensity of Love and to discuss the sources of Love.
Dante concludes with a praise of God as the source of Love. At his words all Heaven responds with a paean, and immediately Dante's vision is restored.
There appears before him a fourth great splendor which Beatrice identifies as the soul of Adam. Dante begs Adam to speak, and learns from him the date of Adam's creation, how long Adam remained in Eden, the cause of God's wrath, and what language Adam spoke in his time on Earth.
But tell me if you feel yet other ties
bind you to Him. Say with how many teeth
this love consumes you.
Canto 26, verse 50-51
I questioned her about a fourth great light
near us, and she: "In that ray's Paradise
the first soul from the hand of the First Power
turns ever to its maker its glad eyes."
Canto 26, verse 82-83
St. Peter grows red with righteous indignation and utters a denunciation of Papal corruption. All Heaven darkens at the thought of such evil. Peter's charge, of course, is that the papacy has become acquisitive, political, and therefore bloody. Having so catalogued the crimes of the bad popes, Peter specifically charges Dante to repeat among mankind the wrath that was spoken in Heaven.
The triumphant court soars away and Dante is left with Beatrice who tells him to look down. Dante finds he is standing above a point midway between Jerusalem and Spain, and having seen earth (and all its vaunted pomps) as an insignificant mote in space, Dante once more turns his thoughts upward as Beatrice leads him in the ascent of Primum Mobile, discoursing en route on the Nature of Time (which has its source in the Primum Mobile). The time of Earth's corruption, Beatrice tells Dante, is drawing to a close.
As Jupiter might appear if it and Mars
were birds and could exchange their glowing plumes--
such it became among the other stars.
Canto 27, verse 13-15
Dante turns from Beatrice and beholds a vision of God as a non-dimensional point of light ringed by nine glowing spheres representing the angel hierarchy.
Dante is puzzled because the vision seems to reverse the order of the Universe, the highest rank of the angels being at the center and represented by the smallest sphere. Beatrice explains the mystery to Dante's satisfaction, and goes on to catalogue the orders of the angels.
I saw a Point that radiated light
of such intensity that the eye it strikes
must close or ever after lose its sight.
Canto 28, verse 16-17
Beatrice, gazing on God, sees Dante's unspoken questions and explains to him God's intent in willing the Creation, the eternity of God, and the simultaneity of Creation.
She proceeds then to explain the time from the Creation to the revolt of the angels, how the loving angels began their blissful art, and that Grace is received according to the ardor of Love.
She then denounces foolish teachings, and concludes by pointing our the infinity and the distinction of the angels.
It was accursed pride for which they fell,
the pride of that dark principal you saw
crushed by the world's whole weight in deepest Hell.
Canto 29, verse 55-56
Now preachers make the congregation roar
with quips and quirks and so it laugh enough,
their hoods swell, and they ask for nothing more.
Canto 29, verse 117-118
The great theme is drawing to a close. Here in the Empyrean, Beatrice is at last at home, her beauty made perfect, and Dante utters a lofty praise of Beatrice.
Beatrice promises Dante a vision of both Hosts of Paradise. He is blinded by a new radiance, hears a voice announce that he shall be given new powers, and immediately he sees a vision of a river of Light. As in the Terrestial Paradise, he is commanded to drink. No sooner is his face submerged in the water than the vision grows circular and re-forms as a vision of the Mystic Rose.
From the first day I looked upon her face
in this life, to this present sight of her,
my song has followed her to sing her praise.
Canto 30, verse 30-31
I saw a light that was a river flowing
light within light between enameled banks
painted with blossoms of miraculous spring.
Canto 30, verse 61-63
The second soldiery of the Church Triumphant is the Angel Host and Dante now receives a vision of them as a swarm of bees in eternal transit between God and the Rose.
Dante turns from that rapturous vision to speak to Beatrice and finds in her place a revered elder. It is St. Bernard, who will serve as Dante's guide to the ultimate vision of God. Bernard shows Dante his last vision of Beatrice, who has resumed her throne among the blessed. Across the vastness of Paradise, Dante sends his soul's prayer of thanks to her. Beatrice smiles down at Dante a last time, then turns her eyes forever to the eternal fountain of God.
Bernard, the most faithful of the worshippers of the Virgin, promises Dante the final vision of God through the Virgin's intercession. Accordingly, he instructs Dante to raise his eyes to her throne. Dante obeys and burns with bliss at the vision of her splendor.
"And if you raise your eyes you still may find her
in the third circle down from the highest rank
upon the throne her merit has assigned her."
Canto 31, verse 67-68
His eyes fixed blissfully on the vision of the Virgin Mary, Bernard recites the orders of the Mystic Rose, identifying the thrones of the most blessed.
Mary's throne is on the topmost tier of the Heavenly Stadium. Directly across from it rises the throne of John the Baptist. From her throne to the central arena descends a line of Christian saints. These two radii form a diameter that divides the stadium. On one side are enthroned those who believe in Christ to Come; on the other, those who believed in Christ Descended. The lower half of the Rose contains, on one side, the pre-Christian children saved by Love, and on the other, the Christian children saved by baptism.
Through all these explanations, Bernard has kept his eyes fixed in adoration upon the Virgin. Having finished his preliminary instruction of Dante, Bernard now calls on him to join in a Prayer to the Virgin.
98 VIRGIN AND GABRIEL
The self-same Love that to her first descended
singing "Ave Maria, gratia plena"
stood before her with its wings extended.
Canto 32, verse 94-95
Remember grace must be acquired through prayer.
Therefore I will pray that blessed one
who has the power to aid you in your need.
Canto 32, verse 147-148
St. Bernard offers a lofty prayer to the Virgin, asking her to intercede in Dante's behalf, and in answer Dante feels his soul swell with new power and grown calm in rapture as his eyes are permitted the direct vision of God.
There can be no measure of how long the vision endures. It passes, and Dante is once more mortal and fallible. Raised by God's presence, he had looked into the Mystery and had begun to understand its power and majesty. Returned to himself, there is no power in him capable of speaking the truth of what he saw. Yet the impress of the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God's Love.
"Virgin Mother, daughter of thy son;
humble beyond all creatures and more exalted;
predestined turning point of God's intention;
thy merit so ennobled human nature
that its divine Creator did not scorn
to make Himself the creature of His creature.
Canto 33, verse 1
Here my powers rest from their high fantasy,
but already I could feel my being turned--
instinct and intellect balanced equally
as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars--
by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
Canto 33, verse 142-145