Selections from the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Translated from the Italian, with a Commentary
Appeared in Autumn/Winter 2003, Vol. XXVIII, Nos. 3, 4
IN THE SIXTH CIRCLE, Dante speaks to the Epicurean heretic Farinata, valorous leader of one of the Florentine factions. They are interrupted by Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the father of Dante’s friend and fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti; he is dismayed to hear, as he thinks, that Guido is dead. Dante resumes speaking with Farinata, who prophesies Dante’s exile from Florence, and explains to Dante the limits of the knowledge of the damned.
Now he proceeded down a secret track between the torments and the
my Teacher, with me close behind his back.
“O highest peak of virtue,” I began,
“who lead me at your pleasure round these rings, speak to me, let my wish be
The people who are lying in these graves,
can they be seen? The lids have all been raised and no one seems on
guard.” And he to me:
“These will be bolted on the day of doom
when from the Valley of Jehosophat
the souls bring back their bodies to the tomb.
On this side, in his cemetery, lies
that epicurus with his followers who put it that spirit dies when
Now as for your request, soon it will be fulfilled for you in here-that, and
another desire you silently withhold from me.”
“Good leader, if I hide my heart from you,”
said I, “I do it only to speak less.
That’s what you’ve often said that I should do.”
“O Tuscan, you who speak with modest grace,
alive and traveling through the city of fire,
may it please you to pause here in this place.
Your speech and accent make it clear to me
you were born in the noble fatherland2
I may have punished once too bitterly.”
This sound suddenly burst forth from inside
one of the arks of stone, and in some fear
I drew a little closer to my guide.
“What are you doing? Turn around!” said he.
“Look upon Farinata risen there!
His full height from the waist up you will see.”
I had already fixed my eyes on his;
who raised himself with great chest and great brow,
surging as if he held all Hell in scorn.
And with his prompt and spirited hand my guide
pushed me towards him among the sepulchers,
saying, “Make sure each word you utter counts.”
At the foot of his tomb I stood, and he
looked at me for a little, till he asked,
with some disdain, “Who were your family?”
I who was eager to obey him did
not hide the matter, but revealed it all,
at which he raised his eyebrow just a bit
And said, “They were bold enemies of mine,
erce to my party and my ancestors,
for which twice over I sent them scattering.”
“If they were twice cast out, they twice returned,”
I thus responded, “and from every side,
an art which yours, it seems, have not well learned
Then next to him out of the lidless tomb
arose a shadow visible to the chin;
I think he must have risen to his knees.
He looked around me, searched, as if he longed
to see if someone else was there with me,
and when his little hope was doused, he wept
And said, “If through this dungeon of the blind
you go by means of genius at its height,
where is my son?3 Why is he not with you?”
And I: “I haven’t come here on my own.
He who stands waiting leads me through this place
for one4 your Guido, maybe, held in scorn.”
I’d read his name already by his words
and by the manner of his punishment,
so I replied in full. But suddenly
He drew upright and cried, “What do you mean?
You said ‘he held’-isn’t he still alive?
Has the sweet sunlight ceased to strike his eyes?”
And when he noticed I was hesitant
and didn’t answer him immediately,
he fell back, and did not come out again.
But he at whose request I’d stopped to speak,
that man of great soul, never turned his neck,
or bent his trunk, or changed his countenance,
But went on speaking as he had at first.
“If they have badly learned that art, that wrings
more pain from me than does this bed of fire.
Yet fifty times the moon will not re-burn-
that face of Hecate, the queen of Hell-
before you nd how hard that is to learn.
As you hope to go back to the sweet world,
tell me, why are those people pitiless
against my side in every law they pass?”
Said I, “The great rout and the massacre
that blushed the river Arbia red with blood-
that’s why our temple sounds with such a prayer.”
He shook his head a little, with a sigh.
“There I was not alone-nor would have moved
with all the others, had there been no cause.
“But when each man agreed to wipe away
Florence from off the earth, I was alone,
her sole defender in the sight of all.”
“Ah, as your seed may ever hope for peace,”
I begged him, “please, untie this knot for me
which twists my judgment all in tangles here.
If I’ve heard right, it seems that you can see
what time will bring before it comes to pass-
not so, for things that happen currently.”
“As a man with bad vision,” he replied,
“we dimly see things far away. So much
splendor the sovereign Lord still shines on us.
When things draw near, or happen, emptiness
is all we see. If no one brings us news,
we can know nothing of your human state.
Now you can understand that evermore
dead will be all our knowledge from the time
the future ends, and judgement shuts the door.”
Then I said-for I felt remorse’s sting –
“Will you now tell that soul who fell away,
his son is still on earth among the living?
If at first I was silent in reply,
let him know I was caught in that mistake,
dwelling upon the doubt you’ve solved for me.”
And now my Teacher called me to return,
so I besought the soul to hurry on
and tell me who stood with him in that tomb.
“More,” he said, “than a thousand lie with me;
“Frederick the Second and the Cardinal.
About the rest I have no more to say.”
At that he hid his form within. So towards
the ancient poet I turned my steps,
and mulled the spirit’s speech to me, his hostile words.
And as we walked in silence, by and by
the poet said, “Why are you lost in thought?”
And so I satisFIed him in reply.
“Save in your memory everything you’ve heard
against you,” that wise man commanded me,
“and now listen to this,” he said and pointed.
“When you shall come before the radiance
of that sweet soul5 whose lovely eye sees all,
from her you’ll learn the journey of your life.”
Then straight to the left hand he took his way;
we left the walls and towards the center walked
along a path that struck into a pit
Whose loathsome stench rose to the very top.
NOW AT THE BEGINNING of the ring of pride, the poets behold portrayals of humility. Passing by these, they encounter the proud, who bear heavy stones upon their backs.
We stood within the threshold of that gate
which the soul’s evil love neglects to use
(for that love makes the twisted way seem straight),
When with a clash I heard the portal close: and if I’d turned my eyes, for such
a fault how could I hope to nd a t excuse?
We climbed into a cranny of the rock,
a zigzag path that led us here and there,
as waves retreat and reapproach the shore.
“We’d better be a little artful now,”
my guide began, “and hug whichever side-
the left, the right-gives us the room to go.”
And so we did, with few and halting steps, so slow that first the waning of
the moon had found its bed to settle in the west6
Before we’d got outside that needle’s eye.
But after we were free and in the clear
up where the hill slopes backward to the sky,
I faint of limb and both of us unsure
about our way, we found a level place,
lonelier than a road through desert lands,
And there we rested. From the empty space
beyond the brink, the length of three grown men
would measure off the distance to the base
Of the still-towering cliff, and just so wide
appeared this cornice-by my vision’s wing
as far as I could see down either side.
We hadn’t moved our steps upon the ring
when I observed that as the cliff’s base turned,
angled at less than perpendicular,
It was all gleaming marble and adorned
with figures so well carved that not alone
would the great Polycletus there feel scorned
But Nature too. The angel7 who came down
with the decree that brought to earth the peace
for which men wept so many years, which freed
The gates of Heaven long prohibited,
to us appeared so true, engraven there
in sweet and courteous pose, he did not seem
A silent form. You’d swear you heard him say
“Hail!”-for the one who opened Heaven’s high love
was there in image, she who turned the key,
And in her pose was stamped the spoken word,
exactly as a seal in molten wax: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Said the sweet Teacher, at whose side I stood
nearest the heart, “You should not hold your mind
upon one place alone.” At that I moved
In eye and glance, and then I saw, behind
Mary, in that direction where my guide
was standing when he moved me to attend,
Another story sculpted in the rock.
I leapt past Virgil and I drew up near, the better to behold it. Cut into
That marble were the oxen made to bear
the wagon and the holy Ark, whose fall8
should make men not assigned a duty fear
To take it up. In front came people, all
parted in seven bands, who made one sense
of mine say, “No,” the other, “Yes, they’re singing,”
And so too with the smoke of frankincense-
the image set at strife the eyes and nose
with yes and no. Before the holy vessel,
Leading the way in dance and reveling,
his skirts tucked high, the humble psalmist9 came,
at once appearing more and less than king.
Figured forth at a window opposite
in a great palace, Michal stared in gloom,
the woman who despised him in her heart.
From where I stood I walked a little way
to view from right up front another story,
graven behind Michal and gleaming white.
For there was told in sculpture the high glory
of the one roman principate whose worth
moved Gregory10 to his greatest victory,
I speak of Trajan, emperor of rome;
and an old widow at his horse’s rein
stood as one shedding tears and stooped with sorrow.
Crowded about him pressed the cavalry,
and high above them stirring in the breeze
appeared the eagles” in the eld of gold.
The poor old woman among all of these
seemed to say, “Justice, Lord! Avenge my son!
He’s murdered, and the sorrow breaks my heart,”
And he responded, “Wait till I return,”
and she, as one whom grief still hurries on,
“What if you never do return, my lord?”
“The man who takes my place, he’ll see it done.”
And she: “What will his good deed do for you?
He performs his, and you forget your own.”
Whence his reply, “Take comfort. I must do
my duty in this place before I move.
Justice demands it, pity holds me here.”
No new or strange thing ever strikes the sight
of Him who made this speech that can be seen;
new to us, for on earth it is not so.
And while I gazed on them with great delight
the images of such humility,
the dearer for the hand that fashioned them-
“Look over there,” the poet whispered to me.
“People are coming, but their steps are slow.
They’ll send us to the levels higher up.”
My eyes, which were content in gazing so,
eager as ever to behold new things,
were not slow now to turn and look his way.
Reader, I want you not to lose the power
of your good resolution and intent,
hearing how God demands we pay the debt.
Don’t dwell upon the form of punishment
but on what follows; think that at the worst
it cannot last beyond the day of doom.
“Teacher, those things I see approaching us
don’t look like people,” I began. “But what?
I don’t know, with the raving of my eyes!”
“Their heavy torment makes them crouch and squat
down to the earth so low, these eyes of mine,”
said he, “ rst had to tussle with my thought.
But fix your gaze and separate the vine
to see what comes our way beneath those stones.
Then you’ll learn how their breasts are beaten here.”
Weary, pathetic Christians full of pride,
whose minds go tottering on and hardly see,
while in your backward paces you confide
Have you not learned that we are only worms
born to form the angelic butterfly
which ies to justice shorn of its cocoon?
About what do your spirits crow so high,
defective insects all of you-like grubs
falling short of their form’s maturity?
Sometimes to prop a roof or ceiling up
you’ll see the corbel sculpted like a man
bearing the weight, knees crushed against his chest,
Begetting agony in those who see
what’s not real makes you feel really oppressed –
so I saw them, when I looked carefully.
According to the heaviness in fact
they were hunched more or less by what they bore,
and those who showed most patience in the act
Seemed to say, weeping, “I can bear no more.”
DANTE AND BEATRICE HAVE RISEN to the fourth circle, the Sun, the dwelling of the Wise. Dante is addressed by Thomas Aquinas, who names for him the eleven other spirits in the heavenly garland.
That inexpressible and primal Power,
looking on his begotten Son with Love
they breathe eternally, created all
That turns through mind or place in Heaven above
with an order so sweet, no one can gaze
upon the world without a taste of Him.
unto those lofty wheels then, reader, raise
your eyes with me, direct them to the part
where two celestial circles12 cross and pass,
And fall enamored of that Master’s art
whose gaze will never part from what He’s made,
so deeply does He love it in His heart.
See how the ring that sweeps the planets round
tilts as it shoots from there, to satisfy
the world that calls upon their in uence:
for had their highway not been pitched awry
it would have quelled the power of many a star
and rendered almost every potency
Dead here below; but to come just too near
or veer a little further from the level
would rob the order of each hemisphere.
Stay at your bench now, reader, stay and dwell
on these small hints that whet the appetite,
and taste elation long before you tire!
I’ve set the table; take you now and eat;
for now the matter calls on all my care,
turning my mind to the command, to write
What I have seen. The noblest minister
of Nature,13 he whose light divides the day,
who most imprints the world with heavenly power,
Touching those crossing circles in the sky,
turned in the spirals of his summertime
of ever earlier rising; there was I
Turning with him, but did not feel the climb,
unless I noticed it as someone feels
thought on the instant, when the thought has come.
For it is Beatrice who so reveals
the good and better, with such sudden fight,
her act has no extent in time. The souls
Within that sun I entered, ah how bright!
For not by color were they visible,
but by their own intensity of light.
On wit and use and art I’ll call and still
never find words for you to picture it.
Believe, and thirst to see it for yourselves.
And if our fancy cannot touch such height,
no wonder: for the eye has never known
splendor on earth surpassing the sun’s light.
So the fourth family of the father shone,
who fills their hunger ever, revealing how
He breathes His Spirit and begets His Son.
And Beatrice began, “Give thanks, give thanks
to the Sun of the angels, Him whose grace
has raised you to this sun that men can see.”
Mortal heart never fed on any food
that made it readier to sing the Lord’s
praises, and give itself in gratitude,
Than I was, when I heard my lady’s words:
I gave my love to Him so utterly
Beatrice was forgotten in eclipse.
She wasn’t displeased-rather so smiled at me
that the resplendence of her laughing eyes
clove my mind, drawing it from unity.14
For I saw flames of overwhelming life
wreathing us round to form a ashing crown,
sweeter in song than radiant to the sight:
As when the evening air is filled with mist,
we sometimes see Latona’s daughter15 weave
her moonlight for a sash about her waist.
In Heaven’s court, whence I have come again,
shine many gems so beautiful and rare,
laden with them the memory cannot leave:
Such was the hymning of the brilliant there.
To y to them, fashion yourself a wing
or wait for tidings from the deaf and dumb!
Those ardent suns that had not ceased to sing,
as stars revolving round the pole nearby,
revolved about us three times in a ring,
Then stopped: as ladies pausing in their glee
hold the reel’s places and resume the dance
as they catch the returning melody.
Began one dancer: “When the radiance
of the Lord’s grace, which lights the flames of true
love and by love still grows in eminence,
With such multiplication shines in you
it leads you up these stairs no man may take
descending, without climbing up anew,
He who’d deny his ask of wine to slake your thirst,
would not be free, would have such power
as rivers not returning to the sea!
You long to know who are the plants that flower
engarlanding your lady with our love,
the lovely one who strengthens you for Heaven.
I was a lamb among the holy ock
Dominic leads to pasture by his rule,
where vou can fatten well if you don’t rove.
My brother and my master was the soul
nearest my right, great Albert of Cologne,
and Thomas of Aquinas was my name.
If you wish to be sure of everyone,
follow my words, follow them with your eyes,
turning them roundabout this blessed crown.
This the third aming rises from the smile
of Gratian, he who lent both realms of law16
assistance that delighted Paradise.
The other near him who adorns our choir
was Peter,17 he who gave his widow’s mite,
his simple treasure, to the Holy Church.
Most beautiful among us, the fifth light18
breathes with such love that all the world below
is gluttonous to hear of him: within
That radiance is the high mind blessed to know
to such great depths, no second ever rose
who saw so much, if what is true is true.
See where the candle there beyond him glows:
He19 in the flesh most deeply peered into
angelic being and its ministries.
The following lantern glimmers with the joy
of that defender20 of the Christian days
who helped Augustine by his history.
Now if your mind will follow upon my praise,
your eyes proceeding on from light to light,
you’ll thirst to know about the eighth.21 Because
He saw all that was good, now in delight
shimmers that spirit who made manifest
how the world cheats-to all who hear him right.
The flesh whence he was driven lies at rest
in the crypts of Cieldauro; but he came
from martyrdom and exile to this peace.
Beyond him see the ardent souls, the ame
of Isidore, of Bede, of Richard,22 he
who was, in contemplation, more than man.
This one, at whom your sight comes round to me,
is the gleam of a soul who came to bear
thoughts that so burdened him, death seemed too slow:
He is the light eternal of Siger,
who when he lectured in the Street of Straw,
syllogized truths that made him hated there.”23
Then like a tower clock that tolls the hour
when the bride of the Lord rises to sing
morningsong to her Spouse, to win His love,
Sounding so sweet a knelling of ting ting
as all the gears within it push and pull,
a soul that’s well-disposed must hear the ring
And swell with love: so now I saw that wheel
rendering voice to voice in harmony,
and in sweet temper that no man can feel
If not where joy is for eternity.
1 Selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy, newly translated and edited by Anthony M. Esolen; Inferno (New York: Modern Library, 2002), Purgatory (2003), and Paradise (forthcoming, spring 2004). Permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.
2 Fatherland: Tuscany; specifically, Florence.
3 my son: The poet Guido Cavalcanti.
4 one: Beatrice, as I read it.
5 that sweet soul: Beatrice. She will lead Dante to his ancestor Cacciaguida, who will actually be the one to
foretell Dante’s future (Par. 17.46-99).
6 waning … west: It is about ten in the morning, guring that the moon loses fty minutes a day relative to the sun. The full moon was setting on the dawn of Dante’s journey into Hell. Since it is now five days later, the moon is setting some four hours after dawn.
7 the angel: Gabriel; cf. Luke 1:26-36; Mary is the one who opened Heaven’s high love.
8 whose fall: When David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, at one point on the road it seemed about to topple. Oza touched it to keep it from falling, but the Lord struck him dead for his rashness (2 Sam.
9 the humble psalmist: King David, in his role as poet of praise and devotion. Michal was his jealous wife.
10 Gregory: Pope Gregory I, the Great. Legend had it that Gregory was so enamored of Trajan’s justice that he prayed that God would nd a way to redeem him. The prayer was answered when Trajan was, temporarily, resurrected on earth to receive baptism. Dante treats this legend more fully in the Paradiso (20.106-17).
11 eagles: on the banners; the eagle was the imperial symbol.
12 two celestial circles: the path of the sun and the other planets (the ecliptic) and the celestial equator, at twenty three and one half degrees declination. Dante asserts below that the angle is pitched perfectly for the actualization of various starry influences and for the habitability of both earth’s hemispheres.
13 noblest minister of Nature: the sun, now past the spring equinox.
14 drawing it from unity: Dante now notices a plurality of beings in and through whom the unitary wisdom of God works.
15 Latona’s daughter: Diana, goddess of the moon.
16 both realms of law: probably the civil and the ecclesiastical.
17 Peter: Peter Lombard (1090?-1160), Victorine monk, author of the Sentences, a collection of and commentary upon opinions of the Church fathers on points of theology.
18 the fifth light: Solomon, who prayed to God for wisdom (1 K. 11:1-9).
19 he: Dionysius, so-named the Areopagite (converted by Saint Paul in Athens, when he preached on the Areopagus; cf. Acts 17:34). Dante refers to the Celestial Hierarchy, a work of angelology incorrectly attributed to oDio-nysius; cf. 28.130-39 and note.
20 that defender: Paulus orosius, who wrote a history of the world at the request of Saint Augustine, to show forth Augustine’s thesis of the everlasting strife between the City of God and the city of man.
21 the eighth: Boethius (480-526). Framed by his political enemies, imprisoned and awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit, Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy. His bones rest in Pavia, in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.
22 Isidore, Bede, Richard: Isidore of Seville, the Venerable Bede, and Richard of St. Victor.
23 syllogized … there: Siger’s orthodoxy was questioned when he lectured at the University of Paris.