DanteDivineComedyHere’s one of the great moments in poetry: Canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante passes through the fire, and Virgil crowns him on their way up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. This taken from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum, and the Digital Dante site at Columbia University.

***

Just as, there where its Maker shed His blood,
the sun shed its first rays, and Ebro lay
beneath high Libra, and the ninth hour’s rays

were scorching Ganges’ waves; so here, the sun
stood at the point of day’s departure when
God’s angel—happy—showed himself to us.

He stood along the edge, beyond the flames,
singing “Beati mundo corde” in
a voice that had more life than ours can claim.

Then: “Holy souls, you cannot move ahead
unless the fire has stung you first: enter
the flames, and don’t be deaf to song you’ll hear

beyond,” he said when we were close to him;
and when I heard him say this, I became
like one who has been laid within the grave.

I joined my hands and stretched them out to fend
the flames, watching the fire, imagining
clearly the human bodies I’d once seen

burning. My gentle escorts turned to me,
and Virgil said: “My son, though there may be
suffering here, there is no death. Remember,

remember! If I guided you to safety
even upon the back of Geryon,
then now, closer to God, what shall I do?

Be sure: although you were to spend a full
one thousand years within this fire’s center,
your head would not be balder by one hair.

And if you think I am deceiving you,
draw closer to the flames, let your own hands
try out, within the fire, your clothing’s hem—

put down, by now put down, your every fear;
turn toward the fire, and enter, confident!”
But I was stubborn, set against my conscience.

When he saw me still halting, obstinate,
he said, somewhat perplexed: “Now see, son: this
wall stands between you and your Beatrice.”

As, at the name of Thisbe, Pyramus,
about to die, opened his eyes, and saw her
(when then the mulberry became bloodred),

so, when my stubbornness had softened, I,
hearing the name that’s always flowering
within my mind, turned to my knowing guide.

At which he shook his head and said: “And would
you have us stay along this side?” —then smiled
as one smiles at a child fruit has beguiled.

Then he, ahead of me, entered the fire;
and he asked Statius, who had walked between us
before, dividing us, to go behind.

No sooner was I in that fire than I’d
have thrown myself in molten glass to find
coolness—because those flames were so intense.

My gentle father, who would comfort me,
kept talking, as we walked, of Beatrice,
saying: “I seem to see her eyes already.”

A voice that sang beyond us was our guide;
and we, attentive to that voice, emerged
just at the point where it began to climb.

“Venite, benedicti Patris mei,”
it sang within a light that overcame me:
I could not look at such intensity.

“The sun departs,” it added; “evening comes;
don’t stay your steps, but hurry on before
the west grows dark.” The path we took climbed straight

within the rock, and its direction was
such that, in front of me, my body blocked
the rays of sun, already low behind us.

And we had only tried a few steps when
I and my sages sensed the sun had set
because the shadow I had cast was spent.

Before one color came to occupy
that sky in all of its immensity
and night was free to summon all its darkness,

each of us made one of those stairs his bed:
the nature of the mountain had so weakened
our power and desire to climb ahead.

Like goats that, when they grazed, were swift and tameless
along the mountain peaks, but now are sated,
and rest and ruminate—while the sun blazes—

untroubled, in the shadows, silently,
watched over by the herdsman as he leans
upon his staff and oversees their peace;

or like the herdsman in the open fields,
spending the night beside his quiet flock,
watching to see that no beast drives them off;

such were all three of us at that point—they
were like the herdsmen, I was like the goat;
upon each side of us, high rock walls rose.

From there, one saw but little of the sky,
but in that little, I could see the stars
brighter and larger than they usually are.

But while I watched the stars, in reverie,
sleep overcame me—sleep, which often sees,
before it happens, what is yet to be.

It was the hour, I think, when Cytherea,
who always seems aflame with fires of love,
first shines upon the mountains from the east,

that, in my dream, I seemed to see a woman
both young and fair; along a plain she gathered
flowers, and even as she sang, she said:

“Whoever asks my name, know that I’m Leah,
and I apply my lovely hands to fashion
a garland of the flowers I have gathered.

To find delight within this mirror I
adorn myself; whereas my sister Rachel
never deserts her mirror; there she sits

all day; she longs to see her fair eyes gazing,
as I, to see my hands adorning, long:
she is content with seeing, I with labor.”

And now, with the reflected lights that glow
before the dawn and, rising, are most welcome
to pilgrims as, returning, they near home,

the shadows fled upon all sides; my sleep
fled with them; and at this, I woke and saw
that the great teachers had already risen.

“Today your hungerings will find their peace
through that sweet fruit the care of mortals seeks
among so many branches.” This, the speech,

the solemn words, that Virgil spoke to me;
and there were never tidings to compare,
in offering delight to me, with these.

My will on will to climb above was such
that at each step I took I felt the force
within my wings was growing for the flight.

When all the staircase lay beneath us and
we’d reached the highest step, then Virgil set
his eyes insistently on me and said:

“My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see.

I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.

Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubs
born here, spontaneously, of the earth.

Among them, you can rest or walk until
the coming of the glad and lovely eyes—
those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.

Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

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7 thoughts on “Dante, Through the Fire

  1. I read a different translation by John Ciardi, and he tried to preserve the meter and rhyme of the original. In so doing, I wonder how much he changed it. I wonder how much of what I was reading was Dante and how much was Ciardi. You picked some excellent subject matter for this interesting post.

  2. Thanks Robert. I’ve read Ciardi too, & also hear that Laurence Binyon’s terza-rima is among the best, but I have the same worries as you. Italian is much easier to rhyme in than English, so you do wonder if something “technically” like Dante is actually very far from him, & that the difficulty of rendering it into English makes for difficult stilted poetry that’s miles away from Dante. It’s always worth remembering that Dante was writing in the vernacular, & intentionally so, so that perhaps the best Dante translation we can get is always changing, always the one closest to the spoken English of our present day?

  3. Gasp! Every time, Dante. You do it to me every time.

    It’s his smallest comparisons that delight me (the child beguiled by fruit) and then he finishes it with that final line from Virgil. I always go back to Dante. He draws me in with his story and mysticism. So beautiful – thanks for this one!

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