Issue > Essay
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming books: This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

Dante's Paradiso: An Introduction

The Paradiso is the last of three canticles (books) that make up the Commedia, what has come to be known as The Divine Comedy. It is the conclusion to the pilgrimage undertaken by the character Dante (also known as the Pilgrim), and its subject is heaven, the realm of angels and souls of the deceased who have returned to God. The story of the Commedia takes place over Easter in 1300, and at the time of composition (ca. 1308-1320), Dante was in exile, having been banished by the Black Guelph faction of Florence while on a diplomatic mission to Rome. Although he expected to, he never returned to Florence. We hear the plaint in a famous passage from Canto XVII, where the soul of his great-great grandfather Cassiaguida prophecies:

         You shall abandon everything
     for which you care most deeply; this is
     the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first.

         You shall know how salty the bread
     of others is, and how hard a footpath
     takes you up and down another's stairs.

Like his revered Ovid, Dante was not one to wear his exile lightly, and we remain aware that for him this fact, the more it is processed, becomes metaphorical. It is surely a part of human nature to yearn for a sense of belonging, and in locating its whereabouts, for any pilgrim to renegotiate a way forward. It is also a metaphor for humanity's fallen state: we begin in innocence and tumble into experience, to put it in Blakean terms. Finding the way back to a knowing innocence (if such were possible) does not prevent the Angel, installed by God, from keeping his post at the gate of Eden with a flaming sword. Just as his own exile informs the Paradiso, so too its direction moves away from that lamentable condition and bends toward belonging, which, in a theological and philosophical sense, equals unity with that which doesn't change, God. Indeed, the souls in the Inferno are there because they couldn't change, but the paradox that change must rise to the changeless, the realm of the Paradiso, is central to Dante's poem. The poem is nothing if not about the measure—in several senses—of its reach. Understanding that assertion will ramify as you note that Boccaccio added the word the "divine" to "comedy," and it stuck.

Not only is the Paradiso the final canticle, it is the least read. The reasons offered for this are various: some say it lacks the sensational imagery of the Inferno or the earth-grounded, edifying climb of the Purgatorio; others complain that it is abstract and doctrinal, easily falling into the esoteric discursive mode favored by the Church Fathers; still others hold that there is little to look at but whirling lights with faces inside, that it contains none of the drama found in the Ugolino and Paolo and Francesca episodes in the Inferno or the farewell to Virgil in the Purgatorio. These criticisms are not always unjust, but the fact is that, by the time our Pilgrim gets to Heaven, he finds himself in a realm beyond drama, a realm in which he is given the opportunity to return with a report of ineffable sights and sublime encounters. At the same time, it aims to transform, or at least ultimately to supplement, action with contemplation, desire with grace. The Paradiso is also more accountable to the mystery of its subject, the journey of love to Love, than the other two canticles, drawing upon and consolidating the most stringent resources of language to bring to account something that lies beyond language. He reminds us of the problems with his translation of this experience, reminding us what it is like to wake from a dream, then partially forgetting the details of the dream, and yet still acknowledge the impact, which is undoubtable and profound. He does this through the entire weft and woof of the poem's fabric: imagery, metaphor, symmetry, the terza rima with its braided rhyme, all in the service of, and in homage to, a triune god, who goes by a number of names: the One, Love, the Holiest, God (and by implication, Jupiter). Yet he is adamant that we not diverge too widely from orthodoxy, the True Path, for divergence can lead to two errors: the belief that the plurality of belief is itself a good thing, and the substitution of clerical authority (i.e., Papal) for truth.

For Dante, the search for ultimate designs was not just the province of philosophers and theologians, but of every person seeking to square the desire for justice on earth with the love of God. In fact, the Paradiso shows Dante at full sail, not only describing what no one has experienced before—a tour of the universe in the company of his eidelon (Virgil) in the Inferno and the Purgatorio, but the loftiest expedition by his Beloved in the Paradiso-- complete with a face-to-face meeting with God, who has prepared a spectacular, cinematic reception worthy of Busby Berkeley. It is a full-scale dramatization, which is to say an embodied account (although strictly speaking, the only body is the Pilgrim's) of the Dante's quest to bring ultimate questions and their answers in line with doctrinal positions that, for him, had the status of settled case law.

In spite of the greater popularity of the Inferno and the objections noted above, many have considered the Paradiso Dante's greatest work, approaching not only the pure face of God, but the limits of art. It raises the final, most exalted questions of which humans are capable: what is the good? How should we live? How do we resist error? What are our responsibilities to others? What are we allowed to know on our brief sojourn on earth? In addition to these questions, which get their sinew chiefly from Aquinas and Aristotle, it also raises the matter of the purpose of art and the reach of language. All of the poem is situated on a paradox: ultimate reality, which we desire, exceeds our means of describing it. Yet if our salvation depends on the formation of our will (Piccarda says in Canto III: "in His Will lies our peace"), how can we represent what is most important without falling into the error of concentrating on the part—our partial knowledge—at the expense of the whole? These may seem like academic questions unrelated to life as we live know it, but Dante was interested in the scope of human endeavor and in the question of how it was possible to unite with God, to go from fragmentary status to final wholeness. The Paradiso is his rejoinder to these questions.

We know what Eliot said, "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third." He wasn't the only Modernist to approve of this medieval conservative Catholic: Yeats, Pound, and Joyce were on board too. Dante continues to get lip-service from survey courses, and his character's descent into the inferno provides puissant metaphors for pop-psychological and mythical adventurers, as well as fodder for peddlers of wisdom literature. He is also a touchstone. To be a card-carrying Dantean is to be a connoisseur of the truly minute, as well as the sweeping. It is to follow the scrambled politics and loyalties of thirteenth century Florence, the personalities of popes and masters of the mace and sword, and the ideas by which they whet their blades. It is also to speak knowingly about Dante's predecessors, both epic—in particular Virgil, and recent—the Troubadours—and to be able to deliver a lecture on the dolce stil nuovo, the "sweet new style" of the sonnet and canzone. It's to know something of Ptolemeic astronomy, Aristotelian physics and ethics, and Neoplatonism, as well as the discourses of the Schoolmen. And of course it is to be conversant in Catholic lore, to know something of the theology of Aquinas and Augustine and the arguments of the Doctors of the Church, to say nothing of having the Bible by heart. It is to hold a custodial regard for Dante's poetics, particularly the celestial waltz that issues from his terza rima. For this sort of devotee, no translation will do.

But Dante's mythological, psychological, and ultimately spiritual account of an imaginary journey is, root and branch, itself a translation, both of deep spiritual events within the character(s), into a tale, and of the fashioning of these events into a coherent artistic experience via language alive to the beauty of its own conception and responsive to the curiosity of its reader. Moreover, Dante extends his exile from Florence into the realm of metaphor and general statement. We first see the Pilgrim who has lost his way, and we are made to understand that the confusion that attends being lost is widespread enough to require divine intervention, which, in the form of Virgil, also makes a poetic intervention. Thus, the correct path leads to salvation and to poetry of the highest order at the same time. In a sense, poetry is salvation, and to distinguish between the poet&##39;s work on paper and in his soul is to invoke a contrast at variance with what Heaney calls "the autonomous habits of the poet's mind." Much has been made of poetry's inability to deliver the very transport it sings about—and for good reason: poetry's means are historical (and hence mortal), while Heaven is the realm of the timeless. Poetry gives us the image of the timeless, without delivering on the implied promise of actual timelessness, and yet when idea and image are so closely bound at every point, you have to wonder why the difference makes a difference.

Dante is aware of the risk raised by his undertaking, and he puts his finger on it in the first Canto of the Paradiso: it's impossible. In the wonderful negative space that is poetry, what is ineffable is both palpably real and untranslatable. You must call it out in figures and tropes, all the while with the understanding that the product—the poem—is not telling it like it is. For this, Plato banished the poets, and yet here we are, nearly 700 years beyond Dante's terminus date, still reading descriptions, gauzy or bright, of the Beyond, and still reading translations, especially of Hell, which is more interesting to the peanut-crunching crowd that Plath imagined pressing in to see—in this case the animated horror vacui of tortured sinners. It doesn't take Shelley to remind us that poets are legislators too: they judge and lay down the law. Dante was himself as much a translator of laws into meaning as a poet, that is, as a maker. Like Milton after him, he wanted to justify the ways of God to men. That is but one of the things he wanted; another is answers. For Dante, God's is a closed system. And while dynamic, often whirling, or careening majestically on its divine course, it is philosophically closed, with God as the source of radiance, the unwobbling pivot, as well as the place where the buck stops. The buck in this case is the question of the nature of things. Most of us do not live in a closed system of this sort, and so Dante can strike us as more than a little inflexible and opaque, even cold, despite the merciful ministrations of his muse and Beloved, the famous Beatrice.

Our image of Dante, both the character and the poet, owes much to the introduction we make with him in Hell. By the Purgatorio, he is still the poetic and spiritual dependent of Virgil, and so both the initial and continued presence of that escort, the "master of earth's memory," underscores the fact that this journey, before it is anything else, is a poetic journey. By the time we reach the Paradiso, Virgil is left behind. Technically, he cannot ascend into heaven because the accident of his birth precedes the Christian era, but poetically speaking, he must leave Dante to make his own leap, this time in the company of the spirit of Beatrice. You might say he exchanges the poetic for the religious, and you would be right. But her expertise in directing Dante's tour is even more expertly evident than was the guidance of the author of the Aeneid. Hell was ordered, but it had the feeling of chaos. Heaven, by contrast, is ordered and orderly.

As Beatrice's psychotherapeutic powers disentangle, time and again, his confusions, Dante's understanding of God's love grows, and his understanding allows him to be drawn upward. Concurrently, he is remaking his poetry (and poetry itself), broadening it from a human medium to a divine one. The change from Virgil to Beatrice (and finally, to St. Bernard) figures a move away from the colorful delights of representational language to the shimmering harmonies and linked, chromatic dances of incandescence itself. Light is, as Yeats said of the soul, "self-delighting," even as it is under strict rank on rank (which, by the Victorian era, was in George Meredith's figure, not of love at all, but of "unalterable law"). We are closer to the Victorians than to Dante, and thanks to Meredith and earlier to John Milton, whose Satan was not the pelted, frozen monster of the Inferno, but the dissident striker of "Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne/ With warbled hymns," we understand why Satan's viewpoint matters. Many have felt this reading the Inferno. Until the somehow creaking, zomboid image of Satan arrives in Canto XXXIII of the Inferno, it is still possible to "understand" and so rationalize many of the of sins narrated by offenders.

Buck Mulligan in Ulysses said of Stephen Daedalus that Dante "drove his wits astray... with visions of Hell." Readers not steeped in the sump of Catholic theology may well question the degree of their engagement with poetry that presupposes superannuated beliefs and rather commit to a more detached appreciation, whether scholarly or aesthetic. This is especially so in poems where the warf of style and the woof of matter are so tightened that it would take curious reader indeed to enforce the separation. At bottom is the fundamental question of what reading requires, and in the case of a poem like the Paradiso, it becomes something like this: who is the better reader of a poem built on faith, a believer or a literary expert? A lover or a scientist with a lab coat and a clipboard? Eliot was of the opinion that the true appreciation must entail belief. Dante's first audience would have agreed: you can't separate the form from the content. But the spiritual carry-on for modern readers makes it less likely such a premise will be widespread. How then engage in secular appreciation of Dante's masterwork in belief's diminished condition? Romantics will argue that it is an act of imagination to imagine belief and therefore to feel the force of its logic. Old Believers, for their part, will argue that to have to contrive the imagination in this way is, all by itself, a failure of imagination. Is the Commedia an actual triumph of some sort, or a poetic triumph? Are the two collapsible? There are many holes down which readers may follow Dante's rabbit.

Ezra Pound, author of his own Cantos, declined to call the Commedia an epic poem. Policing of genres aside, three of the quartet of poets assigned by Dante to Limbo (Homer, Lucan, and Ovid) were epic poets, and his guide, Virgil, was considered the most comprehensive of epic bards; indeed by the Middle Ages, he had acquired the status of a magician. While his magic is no good in Paradise, his own epic, the Aeneid, was the foundational poem of Rome, and at length, of Christendom. Dante's ambition to join the company of poets in Limbo (accepted) is not just self-aggrandizement, it is a bid to advance the conditions of epic poetry as a genre of widest relevance. For example, Dante's Italian was meant as a demonstration that demotic language was capable of telling the story of God and love and should be acknowledged as such. The irony of course is that, as a poet met the shades of the classical poets and sued for admittance, he didn't yet have the work to justify such a bid. The Commedia, when completed, would be that bid, and so Dante enjoyed a little postmodern moment, one that would have amused Borges, who points to a similar feat of legerdemain pulled off by Cervantes in Don Quixote.

Dante derived his physics from Aristotle, his cosmology from Ptolemy. The latter, in particular, helped create the geocentric world of the Commedia. That the earth is at the center should provide no solace for errant humans: Hell is located there too. Plus, earth is the end of the line. But just as the Love flowing from the Empyrean runs the engine of the universe, so there is an immense distance from earth to heaven. All the more remarkable, then, is Dante's tour through the nine concentric spheres that make up this cosmos. Dante is made more and more aware of speed as he ascends, just as he is made more and more aware of the increasing intensity of light. In Canto XXVI he briefly loses sight entirely, but when he regains it, he finds that he is seeing a different way. The Ptolemaic model provided poets with a structural symmetry obsolete or, at the moldy least, esoteric since the Enlightenment, but it continued to spin off in metaphors long after the Copernican revolution. In Dante's case, the cosmological scheme enshrined the philosophy and the theology provided both an exemplary architectonics and explanatory power. His poetry followed suit with its own mania for symmetry, symbol, and allegoric possibility: consider only the numerology associated with the number three and its multiples. God wished to make Himself known through his creation, and at the same time to remain beyond. So it was the job of the Pilgrim (and in Dante 's world we are all pilgrims), who was himself subject to the corruption of matter no less than to angelic beckoning, to exercise his will in such a way as to climb towards the source of love, namely God. He could do this by learning to read the creation in which he found himself. Dante's poem is thus one of education, and he frequently finds himself subject to tutelage, in the first two canticles from Virgil, and in the Paradiso, more intensely so, from Beatrice. He also learns from the celestial worthies, both by hearing what makes dogma true and by interpreting (and prophesying) history. In both cases, Dante is careful to make plain his confusions. By the time Beatrice has assumed charge of his paideuma, she anticipates his vexations before he has had a chance to formulate them himself. The job of articulation and redescription take on a resonance in the Paradiso, especially. Hell is filled with a racket; the music of the spheres, meanwhile, is the harmony implicit in the logic of Love. The souls in the Empyrean, whose projections Dante meets as he makes his way, courtesy of the Beloved, upward through the spheres, can hear it, as can the Pilgrim. The question is, how do you describe a sound so that the memory of the sound comes through the image of the sound? The same goes equally, if not more so, for light.

As he tells us in La Vita Nuova, Dante met the 8-year-old Beatrice Portinari on May Day on the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence. He claims to have set eyes on her only twice, the second time nine years later on the street, where she turned and greeted him. Dante records that he had a dream that night that led to the writing of Vita Nuova and to the understanding that Beatrice had become his inspiration beyond courtly love conventions. She was to become his spiritual guide even as she remained his beloved. As a result it is customary to see Beatrice as a girl and then a woman, followed by Beatrice as a guiding spirit, so pure that she sits close to Mary in Heaven. That he conflates the two Beatrices should not surprise us. Beatrice married a banker before her death three years later in 1290, and Dante himself married Gemma Donati in 1285 and fathered three children. And while Beatrice is clearly the ideal, she remains the historical woman. As late as Canto XXXI, a discerning reader can catch the wistful note of human desire, even though the pilgrim Dante is required to relinquish all claim to her in order to experience the vision of God to which she has so patiently and dutifully led him. St. Bernard remarks that "She urged me to leave my place and come to bring an end to your longing." Beatrice, for her part, is too wise not to know, as Dante more than once refers to her knowing smile and to her ability to read his thoughts. With Beatrice's departure in mind, I think it is helpful to look deeper into just this longing because if, in Eliot's phrase, human desire is "the intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove," it must fall to a transhuman hand to remove it. Dante invents a word (trasumanar) early in the Paradiso to suggest that we must really give ourselves over to become ourselves (where "selves" no longer pertain) in the drawing up to God's love. While the Pilgrim says he felt as changed as Glaucus, whom Ovid tells us became like a god, he laments that the same cannot be said about words. Augustine makes a similar point. This explains the pilgrim Dante's sometimes quizzical wonder that souls he meets in the lower spheres are not smarting for the fact that they are not higher up. He learns that each is completely happy and within God's love according to his or her capacity. The question of capacity rounds us back to the question of language, of course. We can only know (or for that matter, express) according to our capacity, but our experience, in its fullness, is not to be fully accomplished in acts of "knowing."

The double nature of Beatrice should not come as a surprise to anyone acquainted with the tradition of courtly love, from which so much of our poetic conventions and tropes, even romantic love tout court, have evolved. One entailment of this ethos is that the lover could never finally have the beloved. Perhaps that consummatum non est is the point too, in the sense that incompleteness charges and recharges idealism. Theologically, what results is a transfiguration: the Beloved is not only a person; she stands for that which draws the lover in the first place to the source of love. It is for this reason that Beatrice withdraws from Dante when he is ready to experience Love as unmediated wholeness. At this moment, he feels himself drawn into the process, so to speak, of Love's creative undertaking, which is to make unity manifest. A wholeness of unlimited magnitude is the chief characteristic of Heaven, and it is radiant, dispersing its energies all the way down into the sphere of mutability, whose chief characteristic is incompletion and discontinuous energy, though people possess a sensus divinitatis that, thanks to free will, can predispose us toward the unity that is God. The Resurrection provided the paradigm of that free will and established a new covenant whose completion put paid to the pilgrim's doubts and befuddlement. It also let the paradoxes on which poetry has situated its ancient pike, no longer in need of special pleading or the bending of aesthetics into a crutch, but as fruitful and dynamic. As the human object of desire, fully realized under Love's dispensation, Beatrice is not just the idée fixe of a massively complicated man and poet, held onto for dear life to pull the ship of orthodoxy into the channel. In fact, readers can't help but feel that she remains, through all her transformations, the object of desire up to and including the moment she diverts her smile. The poet seems to ask what the point would be of self-overcoming if he were to relinquish too the humanity of the human origin of love. Despite his towering art and encyclopedic hunger, his Michelangelo-esque ability to manage both the personnel and materiél with synoptic skill, he never gave up the Troubadour ethos, which is grounded in the human personal. Nor did he wish to. That was the poetic equivalent of his choice of Italian over the universal and approved Latin (the language of the Church) as making local language sovereign for the discourses of the mortal pilgrim and—which is very much to the point here—of God's celestial hosts.

Seamus Heaney writes that "he stands for the thoroughly hierarchical world of scholastic thought, an imagined standard against which the relativity and agnosticism of the present can be judged." This was the view of Modernist poets, Eliot and Pound especially, the latter of whom wrote his own epic, namely the Cantos, to judge the present through the lens of a mighty, if inscrutable, past. Mandelstam was the first of the Modernists to see Dante's project in terms of the joy of composition, where composition was less a matter of putting form to doctrine and more a matter of the relationship between sound and hearing, between tongue and lips, mouth and ear. We have him to thank for reminding us that Dante's poem was rooted as much in nature as in the supernatural. It was the language "that we acquire without any rule, by imitating our nurses," as he puts in in De Vulgari Eloquentia. For a poet as obliquely removed as Robert Duncan, Dante represents "a world in speech." He speaks of the "sweetness" inhering in Dante's verse, harkening back to the "dolce stil novo," the legacy of Provençal and Sicilian troubadours, the sweetness leading to the lightness and the light.

If in Shakespeare love is ineffable, and the voicing of it either too understated or too overreaching, the disjointure opening the door to tragedy, Dante, by contrast, shows that love begins in the flesh but rises to the ineffable, a state in which the soul, shed of egotism and desire, finds Love and Will united. Dante first sees God as a reflection in Beatrice's eyes, and you can unpack that a good, long time. Heaven, the face of God, and his achievement in the poem are one and the same. Dante is not unaware of the audacity of suggesting that the completed poem and Heaven are, in some sense, the same achievement. The Paradiso is the canticle where we see Beatrice from beginning to, virtually, the end. Prior to her active guidance as they soar through the heavens she is a memory, a rumor, a spirit who delegates Dante's guidance to others. But while Virgil guides Dante through hell and up the Mount of Purgatory, his authority derives more as from his status as master poet than it does from divine appointment. The poetic education he undergoes suffices to take him to the Garden at the peak of the Mount, but that is not enough to align his affections with each other: the journey to Paradise becomes an education and the consolidation of an orthodoxy surpassing any Papal doctrine. Which is not surprising, as the pilgrim's feet have left the ground, and will not touch terra firma again until the Commedia is over. Nor will the composition of the poem begin until the education is complete and the form dynamic, symmetrical, and self-regulating like the cosmos it takes as its subject; the result is a poem that is at once orrery, confession, and cathedral.

Fiction

Daniel Ross Goodman

Daniel Ross Goodman
The Tryst

Poetry

James Ricks Carson

James Ricks Carson
The Scullery Maid's...

Poetry

Kevin King

Kevin King
Gnats