Here is the beginning of Canto 27, in Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation:
“To the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
glory,” cried all the souls of Paradise,
and I became drunk on the sweetness of their song.
It seemed to me I saw the universe
smile, so that my drunkenness
came now through hearing and through sight.
O happiness! O joy beyond description!
O life fulfilled in love and peace!
O riches held in store, exempt from craving!
I don’t speak Italian, but here is the third tercet, in the original:
O gioia! oh ineffabile allegrezza!
oh vita intègra d’amore e di pace!
oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza!
Say it out loud, if you know how to pronounce Italian (I do). The Italian syllables take flight in ecstasy in a way the English translation simply cannot. I mean that as no slight on the translators. It’s just hard to convey the sense of it. Here is a clip I found on YouTube of an Italian actor reciting this canto. He lays it on a little thick, but then again, the pilgrim is in rapture as he beholds this sight. This tercet begins at 38 seconds. If I had more time, I would learn Italian, just so I could read Dante in the original.
Listen to the beauty in these words, because very quickly this canto turns from exaltation to some of the sternest and most lacerating language in the entire poem. We have not heard talk quite like this since the Inferno. Dante meets St. Peter, who is enraged over the sitting pontiff’s defilement of the Petrine office. Here is the first pope’s pronouncement on Boniface VIII:
“He who on earth usurps my place,
my place, my place, which in the eyes
of God’s own Son is vacant,
“has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth,
so that the Evil One, who fell from here above,
takes satisfaction there below.”
The poet has St. Peter declare Boniface an antipope and servant of Satan. And the saint speaks for God Almighty in this poem. The entire sky of heaven turns red at these words, and the pilgrim says that even “the Omnipotent felt pain.” So great is God’s sorrow over the corruption of the papacy that even He, all-powerful, hurts.
And St. Peter, who was martyred in Rome, as were his immediate successors, and other early popes (which the saint will name below) is just getting started:
“The Bride of Christ was not nurtured with my blood –
nor that of Linus and of Cletus –
to serve the cause of gaining gold.
On and on he goes, like a prophet in the desert, crying out to heaven for justice. Here St. Peter lays into the bishops:
“Ravenous wolves in shepherds’ clothing
can be seen, from here above, in every pasture.
O God our defender, why do you not act?…
St. Peter charges Dante to return to earth and tell the bishops what he has said. What I find so fascinating about Dante the poet is that he was able to excoriate the corrupt churchmen, most especially Boniface, in maximalist terms — but did not lose his faith in God, in Catholic Christianity, or in the office of the papacy, of which he was a stout defender. Recall that it was Boniface’s political meddling that helped destroy Dante’s beloved Florence, and send him into exile. I wonder if any Roman Catholic of Dante’s stature spoke this way about the papacy and the institutional Church from the time of this poem (early 14th century) until the Reformation.
Canto 27 quickly moves past the furious St. Peter, as Dante and Beatrice rise out of the heaven of the fixed stars. Dante looks down again from the heights of the heavens, and sees Earth:
… on the one side I could see, beyond Gades,
the mad track of Ulysses, on the other, nearly
to the shore where Europa made sweet burden of herself.
It’s easy to miss the importance of these references. Ulysses, the villain of Inferno 26, is the figure in the poem who haunts Dante, no doubt because Dante fears that he could become like him. Ulysses was the prideful explorer who traduced all boundaries following his curiosity, and killed himself and his crew in his mad hubris. Ulysses sailed off the western edge of the known world, and the rape of Europa (by Jupiter) occurred at the eastern edge. In this tercet, Dante says, essentially, that he beholds the entire world. Giuseppe Mazzotta says:
[W]e can thus add an erotic transgression to Ulysses’ intellectual transgression, as if the two are once again intertwined. In Dante’s vision, knowledge and desire really have to coincide. He’s coming to the point where the beautiful and the good are one, the point where all of the great distinctions that we have been pursuing have to converge.
At this point, the pilgrim Dante enters the world of metaphysics, or what exists beyond the material world. I am not remotely qualified to explain the fullness of the vision the poet sets down here, and I don’t want to mislead you or to embarrass myself by trying. I told my wife today that the higher we go into Paradiso, the more it feels like climbing a sheer vertical summit of a mountain. I find this poetry both mystifying and enrapturing, and I can’t quite explain why it has the sort of hold on me that it does. I’ll pass on to you what I think I know about this section of the poem, and tell you how and why it mattered to me as a lay reader of Dante. My understanding is greatly informed by Dante scholars, including Herzman, Cook, Williams, Mazzotta, Ciardi, Moevs, and others.
To understand what Dante is talking about here, you have to know something about medieval cosmology, which was Ptolemaic. Earth is at the center of concentric circles, the outermost of which is the Primum Mobile, or “first moved,” which forms the boundary between Creation, which exists in time, and the Empyrean, which is heaven, the realm of the Eternal. In Dante’s vision, the cosmos is a book that unrolls like a scroll. Mazzotta says that in Dante, “the physical universe consists of spirals, one following the other.” The point to consider here is that the entire cosmos is constructed according to geometric patterns and hierarchies, all of which are meant to exist in harmonious relation to each other.
The Primum Mobile sets all the other spheres into motion. It is where Time began. The poet tells us that Time is like a tree; the flowerpot is the Primum Mobile, the roots are in Eternity, and Time appears to us below as leaves that we expect to fall, hence our experience of Time as linear, which it really isn’t. Christian Moevs explains that Time as a tree growing out of a flowerpot is a metaphor meant to express that for us, the passage of time — the rising and the setting of the sun, as first given to us in Genesis — is an effect generated by roots set deeply into the ground of Being. For Dante, if the Primum Mobile does not move, then nothing in the physical universe moves, and we have no life. We are frozen, dead.
The use of an organic metaphor is vitally important here. Dante is telling us that the passage of Time, and the motion of all things, is the way through which the love of God passes from the realm of Eternity, or Spirit, into the realm of temporality, of matter. Moevs quotes a scholar saying, “Time, therefore, is infinitely more than a mere succession of corporeal movements. It is the procession of the Light and Love of Eternity into the temporal life of man.” In Dantean cosmology, the Primum Mobile is the bridge between the material world, in which change is constant, and the mind of God, which is eternal and unchanging.
Note well that in Dante, the material world is not strictly separate from the spiritual world. Rather, the material world is a projection of the spiritual world, which is to say, of the mind of God. Moevs says that for Dante, drawing on Aristotle’s physics, the Primum Mobile is the essence of all Creation: matter existing space and time. The Primum Mobile is the barrier through which the transcendent and eternal God passes his energies through to creation, and receives love back. The Primum Mobile is, in other words, Jacob’s Ladder, the bridge between earth and heaven.
Does the fact that we now know that the Ptolemaic universe does not exist, and that there is no such thing as the Primum Mobile, render all of this as nonsense? Not at all. We can see all this as a poetic construct to help us understand by analogy the metaphysical relationship between the Eternal God and His creation. God is both transcendent of Creation and immanent in Creation. His essence exists prior to our existence; indeed, we are contingent on Him. As Moevs puts it, in Dantean metaphysics, the brain depends on the mind, not the mind on the brain. There is an organic, living, and very real relationship between all created things and the eternal God. The concept of the Primum Mobile explains why Creation is good, and how God sustains us in it. He is not like a puppetmaster manipulating inert matter from the outside. He is the life-force making us grow from within, even though we cannot see the roots.
Beatrice continues the Nature metaphors:
“O greed, it is you who plunge all mortals
so deep into your depths that not one has the power
to life his eyes above your waves!
“The will of man bursts into blossom
but the never-ceasing rain reduces
the ripening plums to blighted rot.
“Loyalty and innocence are found
in little children only. Then, before
their cheeks are bearded, both are fled.”
That’s the Hollander translation. I find the Musa version is more graspable:
O Greed, so quick to plunge the human race
into your depths that no man has the strength
to keep his head above your raging waters!
The blossom of man’s will is always good,
but then the drenchings of incessant rain
turn sound plums into weak and rotten ones.
Only in little children can we find
true innocence and faith, and both are gone
before their cheeks show the first sign of hair.
What she means in these lines, and in the ones that follow, is that with the passage of time, ungoverned desire corrupts us. Children observe the fast days, but when they grow up, they shove food into their gobs whenever they like. Children love and obey their mothers, but when they grow up, they may just as well like to see her dead and buried. Remember that in Dante, the root of all sin is disordered desire: loving the wrong things, or loving the right things too much or too little. Beatrice is telling us that giving ourselves over to the passions, by accepting no principle of limitation other than the limits of our own desires, is how we become blind, how we make our lives out of balance, and how we, finally, become strangers to ourselves, to others, and to God.
Christ tells us that if we hope to find salvation, we must become like little children. Seen from the vantage point of Canto 27, this indicates that one who would be saved is one who would, in humility, conform his thinking and behavior to the divinely ordained order present throughout creation — an order that children both perceive and receive. But we adults think of ourselves as our own masters, and of ourselves as the masters of creation. It is a delusion, and we can do nothing but suffer, and cause suffering, as long as we place our own desires above the moral order given to us by God. Remember Marco the Lombard in Purgatorio XVI, when he gives these words to the pilgrim Dante:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
to a groan, and then began: “Brother,
the world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew
all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.”
The blindness of the world is the blindness of men caught in a torrent of passion that drowns — that is, corrupts — their sight. Only the innocent see clearly, and only through humility, and the right ordering of the passions, can a mature man regain a measure of innocence. The choice is our own. God has ordained natural paths, but He has also given us free will, which is to say, the liberty to reject the natural paths. What we are not free to do is to lie to ourselves, and to say that things cannot be any other way. This is the lie that damns.
One more thing. In thinking of the relationships this canto draws among order, time, guilt, and innocence, I thought of the famous line from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The poem speaks of a world spiraling out of control, because “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” — that is, men do not recognize any master other than their own passions. I do not know much about Yeats, but I know that he was a traditionalist who saw in ritual and ceremony a fundamental ordering of the world. If you would understand the wisdom Beatrice is teaching in this canto from a more contemporary perspective, look at Yeats’s beautiful and profound poem A Prayer For My Daughter, especially these parts:
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
Yeats was not a Christian, but he is saying here that to renounce passion is to make grace possible, and that if you achieve inner order, grace (symbolized by a linnet, which is a songbird) is possible, and you become united to heaven (not a Christian heaven, understand, but rather that your desires will be purified). Yeats believed that order in one’s soul and in society discipline the passions and drive out hatred and destructive passions. And he believed that custom and ceremony were the organic means through which the inner order is made manifest and tangible. Ceremony and ritual mark time reverently, in right order, versus the pounding drums of passion, which Yeats, early in the poem, posits as a threat to his baby daughter’s safety.
In The Second Coming, all the ceremonies of innocence — the old customs that gave life grace, right order, and meaning — were drowned in a tide of blood, the outpouring of the passions, chief among them wrath. In this “prayer” for his daughter, Yeats wishes for her to have a life that bears fruit, one that ripens, not rots. Only by disciplining the passions, cultivating virtue, and living by measure, is that possible for her. And so too for us.
You can live by the Tao, the Way, and know peace and harmony. Or not. The choice is yours. Is ours.