Autore: Peter Dronke
Tratto da: Romance Philology
With the extended, complex astronomical simile that spans the first 15 lines of Paradiso 30, Dante bids farewell to the angels’ triumph that he had seen in the Crystalline, the highest heaven of the material universe, and prepares to enter the ultimate stage of his vision, in the Empyrean—the immaterial heaven that is beyond space and beyond time. This is the fifth occasion on which Dante uses stellar imagery at the opening of a canto in Paradiso; this time, however, it is not in order to set yet another phase of his journey in an exalted cosmic dimension, but in order to take his leave of the astronomers’ cosmos altogether. As the simile slowly unfolds, Dante creates a sense of almost endless distancing: first by way of the orotund number in the opening verse, which is given its own mysterious, uncertain aura by the “perhaps” that precedes it; then by way of expressions that convey the depth of heaven to a human gaze (4), and the depth of earth in relation to heaven (6):
Forse semilia miglia di lontano
ci ferve l'ora sesta, e questo mondo
china già l’ombra quasi al letto piano,
quando ‘I mezzo del ciclo, a noi profondo,
comincia a farsi tal, ch’alcuna stella
perde il parere infino a questo fondo.
Perhaps six thousand miles away
the sixth hour flames, and this earth already
inclines its shadow almost to a level bed,
when the sky’s center, deep over us,
begins to alter so that certain stars
lose appearance to this depth below. (1-6)
Many scholars have commented on the rich and recurrent uscs of the words for secing—vedere, vista, and their cognates—in this canto; I am not sure, on the other hand, if the force of the key adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions has been observed. Thus the prepositional infino a ‘as far as’ comes four times: twice within the opening simile itself, suggesting the stretching over great expanses, and the mind’s stretching to comprehend such expanses—infino a questo fondo (6), infino a la più bella (9). The same sense of the mind straining to its limits informs the moments when Dante summons up all he has said of Beatrice “as far as here” (infino a qui, 16), “as far as this sight of her” (infino a questa vista, 29). This construction is only one symptom of the many efforts of Dante’s imagination as it strives to attain and conjure up a distant, supremely arduous goal. I think no other canto in the Commedia is so thickly studded with the conjunctions and adverbs of comparison and approximation— come, così, si come, si che, tal che, cotal qual, qual è colui che, quasi—and the canto’s opening word, forse, may likewise be reckoned along with these. All such parts of speech stress Dante's keen sense throughout the canto that his images are only images, only approximations. So, too, in the later part of the canto, the iteration of mirrors and words of mirroring brings into play concepts which by their nature convey the limitations that lie in the nature of images.
The literal meaning of the opening verses, though some details are still disputed, seems to be this. Perhaps 6000 miles away from us it is noon, and the earth casts its shadow almost horizontally. At that moment—which, by Dante’s calculation of the earth’s circumference, corresponds to our sunrise, to six in the morning—some stars are beginning to fade from the center of the sky (the earliest stars having already vanished on the eastern horizon). Gradually, as the dawn advances, all stars—imagined here as viste, spy-holes in the vault of heaven—are closed to our sight, even the most radiant ones (7—9). This is how the triumph of the angels is gradually extinguished before Dante’s gaze. Dante’s next vision (is the implication) will be as vast and splendid, compared with that of the angels’ jubilance, as the dawn and the plenitude of sunlight are compared with the stars that fade as the day breaks.
At this moment, however, when the last of the angels’ lights have disappeared, the Crystalline is empty, all is somber and still. Only Beatrice remains, and Dante turns his eyes to her: the long arc of the astronomical simile is completed in the verse
nulla vedere e amor mi costrinse
the seeing nothing and the love compelled me (15)
—a pairing that for me belongs with the poetic marvels of the Commedia. With these words Dante not merely makes definitive the eclipse of his previous vision, only his love for Beatrice remaining unalterably; he even suggests that all his vision is coterminous with Beatrice’s love. I believe there are sevcral implicit parallels between the fading of the angelic hosts and stars in the macrocosm, evoked in the first five terzine, and the reflections on Beatrice in the six that follow, which underline this congruence.
The angels (11—12) “play forever round the point which overcame me, / seeming enclosed by that which it encloses”; Dante, in his final attempt to celebrate Beatrice’s beauty (22-24), finds himself “overcome, more than ever writer, tragic or comic, was vanquished by a point of his theme.” The word “point” (punto), one of the features that these two moments share, is so fecund in meaning throughout Dante’s poetry that its semantics alone would deserve a comprehensive treatment. Here I can try to isolate only a few asso- ciations that may be illuminating for this canto.
In Canto 28, at the center of the nine concentric circles of angels, is the divine punto, infinitely small and infinitely radiant—the point from which, as Beatrice (tacitly citing Aristotle) explains, the heavens and the whole of nature depend (Par. 28.41—42; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1072b13). OF the many connotations that converge in Dante’s punto, I would signal at least those linked with Boethius and Alan of Lille, two authors who meant much to him. For Boethius, fate, the determinate order of the world, that “moves the heayens and the stars,” is related to the “stable simplicity” of divine providence “as time to eternity, as the circle to its central point” (ad medium punctum circulus; Consolatio Philosophiae 4.pr.6.17 [Bieler 1957]). For Dante as for Boethius, the nearer any beings approach the punto, the more they share its divine simplicity and freedom. For Boethius, “if anything is joined and united to that center, it is gathered into simplicity and ceases to be diffused and flow away” (Cons. Phil. 4.pr.6.15); similarly for Dante the ring of seraphs—the angels closest to the punto—most purely embodies its truth (s’invera; cf. Par, 28.37-39). It is in the wake of Boethius, too, that the great mystic who is Dante’s contemporary, Meister Eckhart, speaks of the world as a circle centered upon God, whose works are the circumference: “Thus when the soul has coursed through all things, she flings herself into the point of the circle… there within the soul becomes capable of all… The unity of the three persons is the essence of the point, and when the soul is united to that immovable point, she can do everything… The point is equally near to all ends, just as time is to all lands.”
These paradoxes of the divine presence take us back to Paradiso 30, where the infinitely small, dimensionless punto seems “enclosed by that which it encloses” (inchiuso da quel ch’elli inchiude, 12). Already in Paradiso 14 Dante had evoked God as “uncircumscribed, and circumscribing all” (non circunscritto, e tutto circunscrive, 30). In both moments it was Alan of Lille’s enigmatic definition of God—“an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere”—that echoed in his mind.
And yet there is also a further echo, seemingly of a wholly different bearing, that cannot, in my view, be fortuitous. The line about the play of the angels (11)—“sempre dintorno al punto che mi vinse”—is strikingly close to that in Inferno 5, where Paolo and Francesca were overcome by one point alone in their reading (132): “ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.” Angels and blessed souls can be overcome by the divine punto, poets and readers by a punto in what they write or read. And if the punto at the center of the angelic rounds overcame Dante the poet, so does the now consummate beauty of his beloved, which is the ineffable punto of his theme:
Da questo passo vinto mi concedo
più che già mai da punto di suo tema
soprato fosse comico o tragedo. (22-24)
Thus the word punto brings together subjective and objective reality, the intuition of the divine and the literary artifact. (It may even be that questo passo here means not only “this step” or point in Dante’s journey, but also “this passage” in his poem.) The final instance of such unification comes in Paradiso 33, where again the Boethian thought is uppermost in Dante’s mind: it is the pattern of divine providence, enfolded in simplicity, the “universal form of this knot” (91), which causes Dante to fall, not into Boethius’ ailment, the letargo (lethargy in the medical sense of oblivion) from which Philosophia healed him, but into a divine ailment, maggior letargo. Then “a single point” (un punto solo) is to him “a greater lethargy than twenty-five centuries arc to the enterprise that made Neptune marvel at the shadow of the Argo” (Par. 33.94—96; cf. Dronke 1984a). Dante’s oblivion in the single point is greater than any remembering such as texts can offer, of earthly events, however marvellous.
Now to turn in more detail to the terzine devoted to Beatrice (16—36). They are often called Dante’s “farewell” to her—though in my view this expression would apply far more aptly to the 12 verses of Dante’s prayer and thanksgiving to Beatrice in Canto 31 (79-90), that are followed by her final smile and gaze upon him, before she turns to the eternal fountain. Again, since Curtius, verses such as those in Canto 30 have often been designated a topos of inexpressibility—yct this too, while correct as far as it goes, might obscure something more important and exciting: the intensity of autobiographical reference, and the structural links with the rest of Dante’s work. What here begins and ends as an inexpressibility topos is transformed into something closer to a “Summa poética”. Beatrice, we know from the diverse stages of the journey through paradise, becomes more beautiful in each sphere, the higher she and Dante ascend. In the Empyrean that they now enter, her beauty goes beyond measure (si trasmoda), just as the new, non-spatial heaven is incommensurable with the spheres traversed till now. As Anna Leonardi sensitively observes: “These verses mean, then, that we are at the threshold of life itself. The limit of the human for Dante takes shape within the limit of the expressible, what can be said in verse. When he leaves this, he is leaving the human dimension… That beauty, in fact, which as he says surpasses him here, it is he himself who has created it, and it changes when he is changing” (1975: 9-10). But at this moment of changing, passing into a reality different in kind from any he has described hitherto, Dante takes stock of his life and his love. He calls to mind the beginning of that love, “the first day that I saw her eyes in this life” (28-29). I belicve the passage recording that first day, at the opening of the Vita Nuova, is essential for the understanding of this moment in Paradiso:
Nine times already, since my birth, the heaven of light had returned almost to one and the same point (ad un medesimo punto), in its own giration, when to my eyes appeared for the first time the glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice by many who did not know what name to give her except this. She was already in this life so long that in that time the starry heaven had turned in the direction of the orient the twelfth part of one degree, so that she appeared to me almost from the beginning of her ninth year, and I saw her almost from the end of my ninth. (2.1—2 [De Robertis 1980])
Dante had begun his evocation of Beatrice with resplendent astronomical allusions, to invest the moment when their cyes first met with awe—his words, if we did not have the Commedia to complement the Vita Nuova, might seem grandiloquent to excess. Now, in Paradiso 30, the imposing language of astronomy returns—it is the last time Dante ventures such an opening; and now, so much having gone between, the sense of cosmic solemnity is deepened. The message is similar to that first one in the Vita Nuova: the highest physical heaven has become still, all its lights quenched, because Dante is once more alone with Beatrice, his eyes fathoming her near at hand, as on that fated day in childhood; her apparition occupies his eyes and mind completely. The continuation of the lines in the Vita Nuova shows that the first occurrence of the word punto was no mere periphrasis for the date on which the year ends, but already carried the Boethian associations of the punto of divine providence:
At that point (in quello punto) I truly declare that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so mightily... and trembling said: “Behold the god, mightier than I, who by coming will overmaster me.” At that point the animal spirit ... said: “Now your beatirude has appeared.” At that point the natural spirit ... lamenting, said: “Alas, I am wretched, for I shall often from now on be impaired.” (2.4-7)
Thus Dante’s last close sight of Beatrice, like his first, is heralded by a cosmic prelude, as demanding as it is sublime. By the sheer difficulty the hearers will experience, as the cosmological images unfurl, the poet can intimate that he is communicating something which strains human powers of comprehension to the limit.
But there are further links with the Vita Nuova here. The expression Dante uses of Beatrice’s now immeasurable beauty—
certo io credo
che solo il suo fattor tutta la goda
truly I believe
only its maker has total joy of it (20-21)
—harks back to some of the most daring phrases with which Dante had tried to make sense of Beatrice’s death (Vita Nuova 31):
lo giunse di chiamar tanta salute;
e fella di qua giù a sé venire,
perché vedea ch’esta vita noiosa
non era degna di si gentil cosa.
a sweet desire
came to God to summon so great a perfection;
he made her come to him, from here below,
because he saw that this noisome life
was not worthy of so noble a being.
These phrases themselves had taken into a new realm of seriousness the audacious erotic outrecuidance of a troubadour such as Raimbaut d’Aurenga, who imagines God as his rival for the favors of his beloved:
Gran esfort fai Dieus, qar sofer
C’ab si no la’npueja baizan!
God makes a great effort, for he withholds
and does not raise her to himself with a kiss!
(Pattison 1952: 143)
Again, when Beatrice greeted Dante in the Vita Nuova, “Amor could not shade me from the intolerable beatitude… which many times exceeded and overcame my faculties” (12.3—4). And it is this overmastering effect, even in memory, of Beatrice’s smile, that Dante recalls for the last time in Paradiso 30. But now there is no further recovery in poetry; only the challenge of the final vision lies ahead.
At its close (31—36) the celebration of Beatrice’s supreme beauty comes nearest to the inexpressibility topoi of the rhctoricians; yet this topical aspect is also what links the perception here with the marvel of the beatific vision in Canto 33. In earlier cantos, Dante’s asseverations of the failure of language had always contained a certain clement of conscious poetic hyperbole. Here and in Canto 33, in their extremest, grandest expressions, the hyperboles become necessary truths. The ultimate celestial beauty of Beatrice, and the vision of God, are both truly unsayable, and Dante knows that it is only by meditating on this that a vestige of the nature of the unsayable is brought back to the world of poetry, the world of his audience.
The revelation of the Empyrean that now follows has its own surprising rhythm: three passages of explanation given by Beatrice alternate with three of visionary experience recreated by Dante. After the last of these, at v. 128, Beatrice resumes her explaining, but this time it rises to a climax of ferocious prophecy. Notwithstanding the alternation of didactic and evocative moments, the rhythm of the canto shows no trace of breaking off or falling off: exegesis and vision advance together in harmony. Among the mystics of Dante’s day, such as Angela of Foligno, we can encounter descriptions that consist of pure outpourings (Ferré and Baudry 1927; cf. Dronke 1984b:215— 17). Dante’s technique is wholly different: his account is structured and controlled to the last detail; each prise de conscience in the canto integrates what has been seen, and prepares for new, ever more astonishing, showings.
The Empyrean was something of an embarrassment to those who otherwise accepted an Aristotclian cosmology. Aristotle in his Physics makes explicit that “beyond the all and the whole there is nothing, and for this reason all things are in the heaven: for the heaven in a sense is the whole” (212618). Outside the heaven that Dante calls the Primo mobile there is nothing, not even a void; for Aristotle the heaven itself “is not anywhere as a whole, nor in any place—if indeed no body contains it” (212b8). Only in the last sentences of his Physics does Aristotle speak of “the first unmoved mover . . . indivisible and having no parts or magnitude” (267b25), which causes that heaven to revolve. It is here if anywhere that his thought laid itself open to synthesis with a conception of more mystical inclination. For certain Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and Hermetic writers in late Antiquity, and certain theologians in the Middle Ages, beyond the outermost sphere lay a heaven that transcended space and time, a heaven of intellectual light or fire. The term empyrean— used for it by Dante in the Convivio and in Inferno 2, though not in Paradiso (cf. Gilson 1965)—was acclimatized in the West especially through the influential fable of Martianus Capella, where the allegorical heroine, Philologia, in her celestial journey, after beholding “the sphere that contains the outermost periphery, driven on at astounding speed,” realizes that “the god who is the father of so great a handiwork . . . rejoices in a kind of empyrean and intellectual world” (empyrio quodam intellectualique mundo; De nuptits 2.201 [Dick 1969 : 76]). In an elucidation of this phrase, which became classic, the 9th-c. Platonist Eriugena, explaining empyrean as ‘ignited’ or ‘kindled’, distinguished between “two empyrean fires, onc invisible and incomprehensible, but filling the whole universe, the other beyond the whole universe and intellectual.” Thus Dante is at least indirectly Eriugena’s heir when he conceives the Empyrean as both intellectual and kindling: for, in Paradiso (27.110-11), it is “the divine mind, in which is kindled the love that moves the heaven and the power that it rains down”; and here in Canto 30 Beatrice, in her renowned explanation of “the heaven that is pure light” (39), secs intellectual light as inseparable from love and joy:
luce intellettual, piena d’amore;
amor di vero ben, pien di letizia;
letizia che trascende ogne dolzore.
light intellectual, replete with love;
love of true good, replete with joyfulness;
joyfulness that transcends all that is sweet. (40-42)
Anna Leonardi wrote: “This is the first time, in the history of human poetry, that such a heaven is entered” (1975 : 3). But her remark should, I believe, be qualified. Dante had learnt at least something of his poetic language for the Empyrean from Alan of Lille’s epic, Anticlaudianus, where this heaven is entered by Alan’s heroine Fronesis, the highest human mental faculty personified. She comes to “the palace of the celestial sun,” the “worldtranscending orb”:
more lucent that what is bright, more effulgent than gold,
it gleams with gentle radiance, lightens with innocuous blaze,
devoid of scorching, abounding in brilliance…
it caresses with radiance and does not lash with heat.
Here fire burns less than fire, shines more than fire,
and thus, remaining one, is less and greater than itself...
It is deemed the empyrean heaven, on which flame smiles
with benign fires and adorns the court with shimmers.
So it is not the poetic evocation of the heaven of intellectual light as such that is unparalleled before Dante, nor even the captivating echo of key words— luce, amor, letizia—from onc line to the next (39-42)—a device that a Latin rhetorician, Sion of Vercelli (Ͳ 1290), illustrated and defined as “verses transformed in part.” The wholly new element, rather, lics in Dante’s insistence that the intellectual light is filled with love. And it is particularly this that suggests a parallel between the character of the ultimate heaven and the final epiphany of Beatrice. Love, kindled in the divine mind, “makes this heaven serene” (queta questo cielo; Par. 30.52)—just as, a little earlier, Beatrice’s beauty, that “goes beyond measure”, was such that “only its maker has total joy of it” (ibid. 19-21). Thus she, through the beauty Dante cannot comprehend, much less describe, ignites the love and joy in his transcendent realm.
If Aristotle could not admit the existence of a wholly immaterial heaven, it is almost too casy for a 20th-c. reader to assume that Dante’s Empyrean was only metaphorically a heaven, consisting only metaphorically of light. And yet that would be a misleading emphasis: for Dante (to borrow T. S. Eliot's phrase about the English metaphysical poets) could “feel (his) thought as immediately as the odour of a rose” (1954: 117). That is why Dante so often in what follows speaks of the intellectual heaven as if it too were corporeal. Indeed, paradoxically, it is precisely in this incorporeal heaven, and only here in the Commedia, that Dante confronts us with human bodies. The Empyrean is filled with “the one host and the other”: angels, who are bodyless, and human beings, “in that semblance which you will see at the last act of justice” (44—45)—that is, wearing the glorified bodies which they long to win back in the general resurrection, when, after the Judgment, paradise will become complete.
To circumscribe the uncircumscript, Dante must of necessity use imagery drawn from the circumscript visible world; yet he does so with deliberate stress on metamorphosis. He never, in the evocations that now follow, Iets the minds of his readers rest with an image, as if that image had enclosed the truth of the invisible realm. Each image is swiftly transformed into another, that hints at another facet of the invisible reality, and again, falling short, is itself transformed. For the same reason, many of the images are synesthctic: by their unpredictable combination of sensations, they intimate what is beyond sensation.
In the first moment after Beatrice’s promise, the effect of the new light— which is alive (viva) in that it is the substance of all the habitants of this heaven—is sudden and overwhelming, like lightning; and even more, as Dante hints through the choice of his latinism, circunfulse (49), it is like the shafts of supernatural brightness that, in the Vulgate New Testament, had been evoked by this rare verb. Scholars have always thought of the light that struck down Saul and his companions on the way to Damascus. Yet the other biblical moment in which circumfulgere is used, and which has not been noted, seems to me even more pertinent to Dante at this moment: it is of the shepherds keeping watch on the night of the Nativity that Luke (2:9) says “and the brightness of God flashed round about them” (et caritas dei circumfulsit illos). The primary associations in Canto 30 are not, I think, with Saul, the fanatical persecutor whom the circumfulgent light blinds for three days, stunning him into a change of heart; they are with the shepherds, for whom the momentarily frightening flash is at once—as for Dante—transformed into welcome and new insight. This is what Beatrice stresses in her explanation: this overmastering light is a token of acceptance, of calm and love; it enables the eyes that have experienced it to see what otherwise they could not have endured. Already this paradox had been at the heart of Alan of Lille’s description of the nature of the Empyrean: it lightens with innocuous blaze, its radiance is a caress. And with great art in his choice of words, Dante brings us back to his own paradox, nulla vedere e amor mi costrinse (15). Once more (51—52) he is faced with nothingness—2ulla—and nulla is joined, almost instantly, by amor.
Much has been written about sources and analogues for the images of the Empyrean that Dante now projects; yet I should like to lay stress principally on all that is here incommensurable with sources or analogues. It is truc that in St. John’s heavenly Jerusalem there is “the river of the water of life, resplendent as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1), and that this river was often, before Dante, enhanced by allegorical explanations and paradisal descriptive touches. Yet what Dante now sees is not a river, but light in the form of a river (just as later he sees that same light in the form of a rose). Nor is it crystal, like John’s stream: it is fulvido, redgold. Where the paradisal spot, the locus amenus, of the rhetorician Matthew of Vendéme showed “spring, painted with peerless plants” (Ars versificatoria 1.3; Faral 1924:52), in Dante the shores of light are “painted with a miraculous springtime.” Here and in what follows animate and inanimate, image and concept, seem to become fluid and interchangeable. Sparks of the living light lodge in the flowers on its banks, and just as we secm to have come back to a suitably static, biblical metaphor, of rubies circled by gold, such as we might expect in the jewelled Jerusalem of St. John’s vision, these sparks become alive again:
poi, come inebriate da li odori,
riprofondavan sé nel miro gurge,
e s’una intrava, un’altra n’uscia fori.
then, as if incbriated by the scents,
they dived deep again into the wondrous rapids,
and if one entered, another leapt out.
To paraphrase by saying something like “the sparks are angels, that become rapturous at perceiving the spiritual beauty of the flowers, which are human beings,” while not in itself wrong, does not greatly help poetic comprehension: it is a rationalization that—fortunately—cannot diminish what is extraordinary about the effect, the conveying of how the quality of ecstasy is shared by angels and humans, and is projected upon all the images—cven to the most abstract.
The sparks, suddenly perceived as alive, carry implicit a further image, the secret of which is not fully revealed till the opening of the next canto, where the host of angels is
si come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fiata e una si ritorna
la dove suo laboro s’insapora.
like a swarm of bees, that inflowers itself
one moment, and another returns
where its effort becomes delectable. (31: 7-9)
The sparks that were intoxicated by the scent of flowers, now fully metamorphosed into bees, descend “into the great flower” (nel gran fior), the round into which the length of living light has been formed. These angelic bees bring to the flower the peace and ardor that they have acquired by hovering over it, deliciously fanning their flanks with their wings (18-20).
These images bring out what was latent in the first, scent-struck flight of sparks in Canto 30, and the two passages together show precisely the way in which the movements among different kinds of reality in this imagery can be surreal. It is not, I think, anachronistic to cite in this connection the finest surrealist poet of our century, Eluard, who speaks of “the sovercign attraction, for me, of inexplicable images, the absolutely new relationships (they) make us glimpse… For a long time one took them to be illusions, for one limited them, submitting them to the test of reality, of an insensible and dead reality, instead of submitting that reality to the test of interdependence, that belongs to it, that makes it living, active, in perpetual movement. Nothing is incomprchensible. Everything is comparable to everything; everything finds its echo, its reason, its likeness, its opposite, its process of becoming, everywhere. And this process of becoming is limitless” (“L’Evidence poétique” ; cf. 1968, 1: 1490-91).
Yet we need not look as far as Eluard: something of Dante’s enchanted continuum between the physical and the spiritual can be found already in Vergil’s reflections in the fourth Georgic. Vergil’s bees, like Dante’s angels, alternate between blossoms and river:
reaping the shining flowers and lightly sipping the surface
of the streams, they become joyous with an indefinable sweetness…
they swim to the stars
of the firmament through liquid summer…
Some have said bees share in the divine mind and drink
ethereal draughts, for God indeed pervades all lands,
the ocean’s realms and the deep heaven…
To him, that is, all things return: they are reabsorbed in him.
That these Vergilian moments were active in Dante’s imagination as he wrote of the Empyrean is clear, I believe, from the phrase (slight if considered alone) “the deep heaven” (caelumque profundium)—for it is this expression that in Dante becomes the cielo a noi profondo of Paradiso 30:4.
Beatrice suggests to Dante both the limitless possibilitics of the images he has begun to behold, and that their seeming limitations are duc only to his own remaining inadequacies of perception:
Il fiume e li topazi
ch’entrano ed escono e ’l rider de l’erbe
son di lor vero umbriferi prefazi.
Non che da sé sian queste cose acerbe;
ma é difetto da la parte tua,
che non hai viste ancor tante superbe.
The stream and the topazes
that enter and leave it, and the laughter of the plants,
are shadowing prefaces of their true being.
Not that these things are, of themselves, unripe—
no, the defect is on your side,
you who do not yet have such high-raised vision. (76-81)
Again the surreal quality in the expressions is notable. Life lurks in yet another jewel image: the topazes, sparks of the fulvid light, choose their own motions of entering and Icaving the stream; and whilst the verb ridere (‘to laugh, smile’) had become familiar in such contexts as “smiling landscapes,” Beatrice’s “laughter of the plants” is another example of “interdependence,” in Eluard’s sense. At the samc time, the images are umbriferi prefazi: they foreshadow a greater reality that Dante will come to comprehend more fully, they preface a divine book he has not yet read, giving only a foretaste of its content.
To know more, Beatrice explains, Dante must first drink of that water of living light. The situation echoes that of Dante’s need to drink from the streams Lethe and Eunoe in the earthly paradise. That too had been a vital stage in his progress in understanding. The echo is strengthened by the image of the little child, linking the two contexts. Dante, stupefied and trembling at his first sight of Beatrice in the earthly paradise, turned to Vergil “with the longing with which the little child runs to mother when he is afraid or in distress.” And a moment later Beatrice, fiercely accusing Dante, “appeared to (him) harsh as a mother to her child” (Purg. 30.43—45, 79). In Paradiso, there is again the sense of the child’s passionate, needy dependency: in Canto 23, human souls turn to Mary “like the little child (fantolin) that stretches out his arms to mother after he’s taken milk” (121—22), and in Canto 30 Dante’s loving urgency to obey his beloved, to drink the water of the living light, makes him as impetuous as the little child who wakes up late for feeding-time (82—84). Once more the links between some of the images are consciously unnatural and synesthetic: the light, in the form of a river, can quench Dante’s thirst (74); yet this quenching becomes a healing of the eyes—or (to remain closer to Dante’s still more remarkable image) the caves of the cyelids—that drink the liquid light.
This drinking causes the light to be transmuted for Dante into another shape, the shape that gradually reveals itself as an immense white rose. Again, innumcrable sources and analogues have been suggested for this evocative image, that dominates Paradiso from now till the close of Canto 32, and I cannot pause to consider even a fraction of them.
I would propose only one line of approach that may help to illuminate Dante’s primary intention. I would suggest, to begin with, that the principal inspiration behind Dante’s rose is more probably verbal than visual. It is likely enough that he had seen what today we call rose windows, such as the one at San Zeno in Verona—though in Dante’s day these were known as wheel windows: rotae, not rosae. Yet the more we attend to the details of Dante’s description, the clearer it becomes that this far outstrips anything that had been visually realized in his time in sculpture or stained glass. The verbal connotations of the rose, on the other hand, are legion—in relation to both human and divine love. There is only one I should like to focus on briefly: since Antiquity, in both profane and sacred contexts, the rose had at times epitomized the paradox of unity and multiplicity. The rose is one and many, because love can unite the manifold in the one.
If the late antique poet Luxorius expresses this in a pagan allusion—
Sed si centum -cum- foliis rosa Cypridis extat,
Fluxit in hance omni sanguine tora Venus
Even if the Cyprian rose is dressed in a hundred petals,
all Venus has flowed into her, with all her blood
(Anthologia Latina, § 361 [Bailey 1982 :281])
—the author of the Acts of John prays to Christ as to him who brings souls into oneness with God, in the words “Jesus... you who have united these many flowers into the immortal flower of your countenance” (Acta Ioannis, ch. 108 [Lipsius and Bonnet 1898 :206]).
This sense of a heavenly unity-in-multiplicity comes out especially strongly in the small treatise on rose symbolism, De rosa, composed by an Italian cardinal, Peter of Capua, about 60 years before Dante’s birth. After distinguishing the red rose, which is the round of martyrs, the white rose, which is Mary, and the red-and-white, which is Christ, Peter develops from this last image an elaborate allegory, in which the rose of Christ puts forth leaves that are both gifts of the Holy Spirit and Old and New Testament personages. Solomon and John the Evangelist, Daniel and Peter, Abraham and the Apostles, are among the leaves “spreading and circumfused all round,” that give “our rose. . . greater spiritual fragrance.” Our rose, which is Christ, “contained the gold of divinity at its center”—for, asks Peter, “was not the gold of divinity at the center of the circumference and of all peoples?” (Pitra 1855 :493).
Peter’s rose thus becomes a complex mystic image, which around the divine center unifies spiritual gifts, saints of the Old and the New Covenant, and at last “all peoples.” I adducc his text not as a source for Dante (though this cannot be excluded), only as a revealing indication of the intellectual development of which the imagery of the rose was capable already a century before the Commedia.
But where Peter worked with explicit conceptions from the outsct, Dante’s rose image takes shape only slowly and mysteriously. When the light has been transmuted into circular form, the flowers and sparks become like maskers at a feast, at the moment when unmasking and recognition brings the festivities to their climax (91-94). Then Dante, perceiving them plainly at last as “both of heaven’s courts,” human and angelic, breaks into the impassioned summons for aid as poet:
O isplendor di Dio, per cu'io vidi
l’alto triunfo del regno verace,
dammi virtù a dir com’ io il vidi!
Oh splendor of God, through which I saw
the high triumph of the true kingdom,
give me the power to tell how I saw it! (97-99)
It is at the same time an affirmation of himself as authentic visionary— not, or not mercly, a great imaginative writer, but one who, empowered by divine help, can tell accurately what he has truly seen. The word vidi, that pervades the canto, here reaches its culmination in being used as rhyme-word in three lines, rhyming only with itself—in the way, as has often been noted, that Dante elsewhere admits only for the rhyme Cristo. Here, we might say, the act of seeing acquires a unique holiness, matching that of its heavenly object. For, as the next terzine (100-105) imply, the living light that enables the blessed to see God is equally their own constituent substance. The blessed are the light which dilates to form the rose. At v. 106 (Fassi di raggio tutta sua parvenza) it would seem that Dante wavers between the material and immaterial implications of his imagery. Earlier we learnt that the Crystalline has no other “where” than the divine mind; now for a moment it seems almost as if the Empyrean reflects a ray of physical, rather than intellectual, light, on the vault of the Crystalline, thus imparting life and movement to it and enabling it to move the lower heavens. Perhaps no image of intellectual light could avoid this equivocation altrogether—none could be more than a “shadowing preface” of the immaterial reality that Dante intends.
Yet again by poetic metamorphosis Dante helps to overcome the incvitable physical limitations of his imagery. The light of the Empyrean, we recall, has become round. Thus—though the verses do not state this explicitly—it is a round pool of light that is reflected on the vault of the Crystalline. And it is this implicit perception that makes possible the next image: the hillside mirrored in water. The flowering slope is personified and alive: it longs to sec its beauty reflected in the lake of light. This lake may well, as Gmelin suggested (1954—57, 3:523), correspond to the “waters above the firmament” whose existence was proclaimed in Genesis 1:7. Again, however, it is not the biblical reminiscence but the surreal quality of what is imagined that is important. The florescent mirrored hill turns out to be itself only the first part of a comparison, in which the mirror image comes to show what seem initially to be tiers, as of an amphitheater, and then petals, of a vast—but ultimately fathomable—rose. And the reason it is not unfathomable is once more related to the paradox of the punto, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere: in Dante’s words (121): “Near and far, there, neither add nor take away” (Presso e lontano, li, né pon né leva).
Dante, as he is drawn by Beatrice into the center of the rose (yellow, like the pistils of a rose on earth), evokes it with a synesthetic image of extraordinary compression: as the rose’s tiers of petals widen more and more before his gaze, the rose (125—26) “redole / odor di lode al sol che sempre verna.” It is casy to fall into the temptation of trying to explain such verses by way of reductive allegories, that trivialize rather than illuminate Dante’s meaning. Thus even a critic as sensitive as Walter Binni equates the perfume of the rose here with “the odor of sanctity”—a cliché long dear to hagiographers (1971: 1076). But Dante is less predictable than that, and more precise. The perfume of this rose is praise: the rose is redolent of the sound of voices praising God; and God is here the sun, whose intellectual light sustains the rose. Yet we also know that the rose consists of that same sunlight: light here epitomizes the unity of the blessed in God. Finally, the sun is forever bringing about spring—forever, we might paraphrase, causing the rose to appear in its perfect vernal beauty, which is the source of its fragrance, the fragrance that itself is the rose’s song of praise to the source and substance of its being. The divine unity-in-multiplicity, that a thinker such as Plotinus elucidated at huge length in his Enneads, Dante concentrates into nine words.
As he takes in the vision and scent and melody, Dante longs to question Beatrice further, but he is too much overawed to do so. She, sensing this, at first simply directs his cyes again and again to the rose in all its aspects: “Mira... vedi... vedi!” The rose is an assembly of “white robes” (bianche stole): the phrase echoes one in St. John’s Apocalypse (stolis albis), and must be understood, it seems to me, in the way that many 12th- and 13th-c. commentators on John understood it. It is the body which is the soul’s dress, the white robes are human bodies (Revelation 7:8, 13; cf. Leonardi 1975: 27). The petals of Dante’s rose, that is, are naked bodies seen in ultimate perfection, in that “mortal dress” for which the souls in Paradiso 14 longed so ardently:
“Come la carne gloriosa e santa
fia rivestita, la nostra persona
più grata fia per esser tutta quanta”
che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti.
“When the glorious, blessed body
is put on again, our person
will give us more delight for being whole”
they ahowed eich great desire for thelr dead bodies. (43-45, 63)
Dante sees the human blessed here in their final, fulfilled condition, because, as Beatrice now insists, that fulfilment is not far distant in time. For a moment the amphithceatral image is again superimposed on that of the flower—not many seats in the circular city remain to be occupied. Dante shared at least in part the pressing millenarian hopes of the followers of Joachim of Fiore, the prophet whom he had extolled among those waiting joyously for their renewed bodies, in the heaven of the sun.
With v. 133, not only Beatrice’s speech but the whole canto suddenly changes course. From the city “where God rules without intermediary” (122), Beatrice’s mind turns, darkened, to the other city, where intermediaries are necessary, but almost always flawed. Her words become a grim prophecy about an emperor and two popes in the world below. Before Dante’s earthly life ends, Beatrice tells him—before he joins that heavenly feast which celebrates the nuptials of humanity and God (note the serene certitude with which, through her words, Dante affirms that a place in paradise awaits him)—the seat of Henry VII will be filled. In the fictive year of the Commedia, 1300, Henry had not yet been crowned Augustus, his descent upon Italy—that Dante saw as his God-given task, for only a universal monarch could restore universal justice and peace—had not yet been attempted, and had not yet failed. His attempt, Beatrice now admits, was to be premature: the Italian cities are too blind and greedy for themselves to be ready for a savior. She expresses it by a final modulation of the image of the little child— the fantolin, whose passionate insistence can also become perverse petulance, “who dies of hunger and drives the nurse away” (141).
But Beatrice imputes the failure of Henry’s imperial quest above all to the duplicity of the spiritual prefetto, Pope Clement V. She, in the fictive moment, foretells allusively the events that had meanwhile tragically been realized: Clement, the absentee pope who had never left France since his coronation there in 1305, encouraged Henry on his Italian venture, and even arranged for Henry’s coronation in Rome (June 1312); but in that same year Clement egged the Guelf cities, led by Florence, to rise up against Henry, who died only a year later, after futile struggles to be recognized as emperor. Clement himself died the following year—April 1314—and Beatrice secs this swift death as God’s judgement on his simony. He will descend to that bolgia where—as we know from Inferno 19—simoniac popes are plunged, face downwards, in a shaft of rock, and his body will force that of the pope from Anagni (quel d’Alagna), Boniface VIII, even deeper down in torment (146- 48). In the last verse of the canto (Par. 30.148), quel d’Alagna is onc of a number of instances in the Commedia where Dante uses periphrasis to express contempt. As Francesca, for instance, scorns to name her husband, not even thinking of him as husband but only as “the one who quenched our life” (chi vita ci spense; Inf: 5.107), so Beatrice disdains to name the popes, Clement and Boniface: the first is the double dealer, the second, the man from Anagni.
Pace Walter Binni, I do not think Beatrice’s words here are calm. They arc measured, but they are also savage. A cold fury impels them, that rises toa crescendo of bitterness at the close, in the last words she speaks in the whole Commedia. It is difficult for us today to relive in imagination the intensity of such political and religious passions; we might even be tempted to suppose there was something disproportionately partisan, or fanatical, about the judgements Dante here puts in Beatrice’s mouth. To this I would reply, first, that her judgements of Clement and Boniface coincide very closely with those expressed in a sober modern work of reference, Kuhner’s Lexikon der Papste. According to Kuhner, Clement was the accomplice of Philip IV of France in “the most appalling judicial murders in medieval history,” and himself ordered the tortures. His nepotism was “terrifying” (erschreckend [1960:82— 83]). And Boniface “was a violent, hate-filled autocrat... limitless in arrogance, uncontrollability, lust for power, and a sense of self-dramatization that took a pathological turn as . . . he donned papal and imperial robes alternately and cried ‘I am Caesar, Iam emperor!” (Ego sum Caesar, ego imperator! [ibid. 81]). It was precisely this usurpation of earthly power by one whose task was spiritual that Dante saw cmbodied in the biblical figure Simon, the magician who tried through bribery to acquire the charisma of the Apostles (Acts 8).
Thus Dante’s judgments at the close of Canto 30 would seem to be mature and telling, as well as courageous. By presenting them as Beatrice’s prophecy, Dante indeed claimed for them the status of inspired truthfulness. When he wrote Paradiso, Henry’s cause had already been lost, both Boniface and Clement had died. Yet their figures still loomed so vividly that it mattered keenly to Dante to show the ill-starred secular ruler as a saint, and the two spiritual rulers as among the most repulsive of the damned. Through his choice of the fictive date 1300, Dante could present Beatrice the accuser as the prophet, who knows through divine grace that the double damnation is destined to be true, and who proclaims it through Dante in order to warn the Church these popes have left behind, the Church that since 1316 was being ruled—it seems as balefully and rapaciously as ever, and still from France—by another absentee pope, John XXII. The world had not been ready for an ideal emperor: the quest on earth must begin again—just as in Langland’s poetic vision the close is still another beginning, a search yet again for Piers Plowman (Kane and Donaldson 1975 : 20, 380-86).
Even granting the validity of Dante’s commitment and judgement at the close of Paradiso 30, however, some scholars have seen there a failure of imagination and artistry. How could Dante “break the inventive tension” (Leonardi 1975: 28-29) that had culminated in the “sempiternal rose?” Clearly it would be less disturbing, and poetically more decorous, if Dante’s celestial vision had continued unbroken till the close of Canto 33, with never another look back at the “complexities of mire and blood.” Yet would this not also mean misunderstanding what is most distinctive and most poignant about Dante’s human and artistic situation? Let us imagine an exiled leading member of the African National Congress today, whose party has been proscribed by the Republic of South Africa for over 20 years—for just as long, that is, as Dante’s party had been proscribed by the Republic of Florence. The parallel can be seen to reach further, Dante, like an ANC exile today, would have faced a death sentence if he had tried to set foot in the Republic that was his home. Again, we know from Dante’s twelfth Epistle that, like some such exiles today, he did receive a conditional offer about returning — an amnesty dependent on his admitting guilt by payment of a fine—a suggestion that Dante proudly rejected (Mengaldo et al. 1979: 594-97). In such a situation, would it really be admirable—or indeed conceivable—for such a man to consign his political ideals to oblivion and turn instead to pure religious contemplation? If Dante had done that—if his contemplation at the last had left earthly concerns behind forever—would he still have as much to say to us today? What counts most for me in Canto 30 is the wholeness of vision. Opening and close are symmetrical. Dante, leaving the Crystalline, leaves the known universe behind, soaring higher and higher; and in the end he returns to that universe, his eyes penetrating deeper and deeper. Even at the threshold of his supreme vision of God, Dante’s gaze returns to the abyss. Even here he cannot but remember the tragic, lacerating aspect of the world he knows, and the fate of its corrupters and oppressors. The vision of the rose enthrals him, yet he wrenches himself away once more. Momentarily he was blessed to be a mystic; yet he remained the prophet with a burning message for the earth.
University of Cambridge