By Kate Milner Rabb
Public Domain Books
The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise
The ascent to Paradise was accomplished by a fixed gaze into Beatrice’s eyes, by which Dante, like Glaucus, was made divine, and by which he was lifted, with incredible swiftness, through the heavens. As soon as he had fixed his eyes on Beatrice’s, who in turn looked towards heaven, they found themselves in the Heaven of the Moon, whose luminous yet pearl-like light enfolded them. While Beatrice was explaining to him that the spots on the moon were not caused by the varying degrees of atmospheric density, as he had supposed, but by the Divine Virtue infused in divine measure through the angelic dwellers in the first heaven, he met Piccarda, his sister-in-law, whose brother, Corso Donati, had torn her from her convent to wed her to Rosselin della Tosa, soon after which she died. Here also was Costanza, daughter of Roger I. of Sicily, grandmother of that Manfredi whom he had seen in Purgatory. Here Beatrice instructed Dante as to the imperfection of those wills that held not to their vows, but allowed violence to thwart them.
Another look into the smiling eyes, and the two were in the Heaven of Mercury, where those wills abide in whom love of fame partly extinguished love of God. One of the thousand splendors that advanced towards them was the soul of the Emperor Justinian, who reviewed the Empire, the Church, condemning severely the behavior of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, and told of the spirits who inhabited the little planet, whose lives were sweetened by living justice, and whose ears were gladdened by the sweetest harmonies.
Dante was unaware of his ascent into, Venus, where dwelt those souls who were lovers on earth, until he perceived Beatrice’s added beauty. Amid revolving lights Charles Martel of Hungary appeared, denounced his brother Robert of Sicily, and instructed Dante on the subjects of heredity and degeneracy; that “sweet seed can come bitter” because the influence of the star under which the child is born can counteract that of the parent, and because his state is not always adapted to him by his parents and advisers.
In the sphere of the Sun, consecrated to the great doctors of divinity, Beatrice became still more beautiful; but so absorbed was the poet in the love for the Eternal Source of all this splendor that for the first time he forgot her. Out of the whirling lights, shining like precious jewels, came Saint Thomas Aquinas, who pointed out to Dante his noted companions, Gratian, Peter Lombard, Solomon, Dionysius, Boethius, and Baeda. Thomas then related the story of Saint Francis of Assisi and the founding of his order of the Franciscans, upon which Saint Bonaventura of the Franciscans, from the next flame garland, told of Saint Dominic and the Dominican order. Alas! while both orders were great in the beginning, both narrators had to censure their present corruption.
The array of brilliant lights, dividing itself, formed into two disks which, revolving oppositely, sang the praises of the Trinity. The song of praise finished, Saint Thomas explained that Solomon was elevated to this sphere for his wisdom and his regal prudence, and warned Dante against the error of rash judgment.
The splendor of Mars was almost blinding; it was ruddier than the others, and in it dwelt the souls of the crusaders and martyrs. While Dante’s ears were ravished by exquisite music, his eyes were dazzled by the lights, which had arranged themselves in the form of a cross. From out the splendor, one star saluted Dante. It was the soul of his ancestor Cacciaguida, who had waited long for the coming of his descendant. He related to Dante the story of his life, commenting on the difference between the simple life of the Florentines of his day and the corrupt practices of Dante’s time, and broke to the poet what had already been darkly hinted to him in Hell and Purgatory,–his banishment; how he must depart from Florence and learn how salt is the bread of charity, how wearisome the stairs in the abode of the stranger.
As Cacciaguida ceased and pointed out the other well-known dwellers in Mars, each one on the cross flashed as his name was called,–Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Charlemagne and Roland, Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert Guiscard, and others.
In Jupiter, whose whiteness contrasted with the ruddiness of Mars, dwelt the souls of great rulers, certain of whom arranged themselves first to form the golden letters of Diligite Justitiam qui judicatis terram("Love righteousness, ye that be judges of the earth”), and then formed themselves into the Roman eagle and sang of the justice and mercy that caused their elevation to this position, and of events about to occur in history.
Had Beatrice smiled as they ascended to Saturn, Dante would have perished as did Semele, from excess of light. In Saturn dwelt the spirits of the contemplative, the monks and hermits, and here was Jacob’s ladder, up and down whose bars of gold sparkled the spirits of the saints, silent for the same reason that Beatrice smiled not. By divine election, Saint Peter Damian descended and spoke with Dante, accusing the churchmen of the time of worldliness and luxury. “Cephas and our Lord came on earth barefoot and poorly clad, but these men are covered with gorgeous raiment and ride upon sleek palfreys.” As he closed, a thunder cry of approval went up from the other saints.
Up the wonderful ladder passed Dante and his lady into the eighth heaven of the Fixed Stars, and looking down saw the little earth and the starry heavens through which they had passed. Then, as Beatrice paused with her face all aflame, and her eyes full of ecstasy, down came the hosts of Christ’s triumphal march, and within the living light, which dazzled Dante’s eyes until he could not see, also appeared Mary, mother of God, crowned by Gabriel, rising into the Empyrean. Of those who remained behind, Beatrice asked that Dante be sprinkled with the waters of the living Fountain; and while they gave their consent, Saint Peter appeared as a fire whirling ecstatically, and singing a divine song. He examined the trembling poet on faith, and his questions being answered satisfactorily, encircled him thrice with his light. Saint James, who next came forth, was likewise pleased with his response on Hope, and he was then blinded by the effulgence of John, so that for a time he could not see the face of his lady.
Of Love he spoke with John, and then talked with Adam. As he listened to the strains of richest melody, he noticed one of the lights–Saint Peter–change from white to red, and then, as silence fell, speak, enraged at the worldliness of the Holy See. “My cemetery has been made a sewer of blood and stench. When thou returnest to earth, reveal what thou hast heard. Do not thou conceal what I have not concealed.”
Commanded by Beatrice, Dante looked back at earth once more, and as he looked, was carried up into the heaven of the Primum Mobile, where dwelt the moral philosophers. Here the angelic spirits circled round the point of intense light, the divine centre. The nearer God was the circle, the greater virtue it possessed. This order was inverse to that of the heavens, but Dante learned from Beatrice that the orbs revolved through narrow paths or wide according to the virtue of their parts, and that a strict agreement of harmony prevailed between the great and the small. The angel and the heavens were created simultaneously, and, as direct emanations from God, know no decay. Of this and many things concerning the Creation, did Beatrice enlighten Dante before the beauty of her smile told him that they were in the Empyrean. “Now shall thou look upon the mighty hosts of Paradise.”
The poet’s dazzled eyes saw then a river of light from which issued living sparks sunk down into the flowers like rubies set in gold. Instructed by Beatrice he drank of the stream and the river changed into a lake; then he saw the Courts of Heaven made manifest, and the splendor of God. The ample Rose unfolded its leaves before him, breathing praise and perfume, and as he gazed into it Beatrice pointed out the radiant spirits and the thronged seats, one of which was reserved for the Emperor Henry of Luxembourg, from whom Dante expected so much, and who died before aught was accomplished. As Dante gazed, the hosts with wings of gold and faces of living flame, singing anthems, alternately sank into the Rose, like a swarm of bees sinking into summer flowers, and rose again to view the Divine splendor. Turning to question Beatrice again, Dante found in her place Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, an old man full of the tenderest pity, who pointed out to him Beatrice in her own place, the third round of the first rank. As from afar, Dante pleaded with the beautiful lady who had left her place in heaven to go even unto the gates of hell for his sake, to aid him still; she seemed to smile upon him before she again turned her gaze upon the Eternal Fountain of Light. Saint Bernard explained to the poet the divisions of the Rose and the seats of the saints, and then addressed a prayer to the Virgin, asking that Dante be permitted to look upon the Almighty Father. As he prayed, Beatrice and all the blessed ones clasped their hands to her who likes so well prayers of divine fervor. At a gesture from Bernard, the poet looked upward. Then what a radiant vision met his eyes! Three circles he saw of threefold color and one dimension. As he looked, one seemed to take our image, and again was lost in the infinite glory of the Light Divine. As he tried to describe it, imagination failed him, though his will remained, moving on with the even motion of the sun and stars.