Having been through Hell (as it were), climbed together the steep terraces of the Holy Mountain of Purgatory and danced through the fire at its summit, back into the garden of our beginnings, we come now to the final section of my Dante Sequence. This is the first of my three poems responding to the Paradiso the poem in which, reunited with his beloved Beatrice, Dante ascends through the spheres of the heavens to attain at last a mystical vision of the God who is all in all, three in one and yet looks on us with a human face.
In some ways Inferno and Purgatorio are easier to read because they chart, with harrowing honesty, the familiar territory of our own experience, whereas Paradiso challenges us with a way of seeing reality, utterly itself, in all its variety and particularity, and bathed in the light of Love, which we have not yet attained. But the key I think is to recognise that just sometimes, and by sheer grace, we get a glimpse of the Paradisal or Beatific view of things, as the disciples did at the transfiguration, and from there we can begin to imagine, and so learn to love and grow into our paradise.
The key verbs throughout the Paradiso are ‘Look’ and ‘Love’; Dante is gradually transformed by learning to look at everything, himself and Beatrice included with the gaze of Love with which God beholds his creation and this prepares him gradually for the final look, the beatific vision in which he himself, together with the sun and the other stars becomes and is moved by the Love he beholds.
7 Look up!
In this first poem I reflect on Dante’s ascent through the first three spheres of heaven, the Moon, Mercury and finally the third Heaven, Venus, the sphere in which our Eros is perfected by Agape.
Look up at the resplendent lights of heaven
In all the glory of their otherness,
Within you and beyond you, simply given!
Let go your grandeur, love your littleness,
Begin a journey into clarity
And find again the love in loveliness,
The constant love in your inconstancy.
Reflected light you’re not yet fit to bear,
Pearlescent preface to eternity,
She glimmers through the veils you make her wear,
Delights and glories in each difference,
In every variation everywhere.
Now let love raise and ravish every sense,
Quicksilver scatterings of consciousness,
She makes you myriad-minded, you can dance
In her swift sway and swing, the suddenness
of ecstasy, third heaven’s heady swirl,
That lifts and flings her lovers into bliss.
Remember tenderly, you glimpsed a girl
Whose smile transfigured all without her knowing,
The tangles of your loving here unfurl
And find their freedom, every knot undoing,
Mistakes unmade, and unkind words unsaid
The spring released at last and freely flowing
As freely you forgive yourselves. The seed
of love, long-planted, breathes and blossoms here
Where you in-other one another, freed
And ensphered where love has cast out fear.
8 Circle Dance!
As Dante and Beatrice rise through the traditional seven heavens of mediaeval astronomy, the experience of each is lovelier and more intense, each sphere as it were prepares and trains Dante’s sight for the holiness and beauty of the next.
For Dante the Heaven of the Sun represents and embodies the light and life of the mind, the sheer joy of pursuing and apprhehending truth. It is in that sphere that he meets the great masters of Christian intellectual life from Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy through to to the great Dominican and Franciscan masters of thought St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. For Dante the life of mind, the pursuit of truth and the interweaving of intellectual exchange, are seen not as contention or rivalry, as they might be in some places, but as a kind of glorious circle dance, centred on the Logos who is the light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. The theologians whirl around Dante and Beatrice in sheer joy and energy. That is the true vision of the life of the mind!
When I came up to Cambridge as a young man I was on my second read-through of the Commedia and I was delighted to discover that almost all the philosophers whom Dante meets in the Heaven of the Sun were still on my syllabus to read! Starting with Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy still remans one of the most important books in my life. Though earthly universities are not always an earthly paradise, I still enjoy in my Cambridge life some glimpses of Dante’s vision of the dancing and illuminated life of the mind!
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button.
A sun-warmed sapling, opening each leaf,
My soul unfolded in your quickening ray,
‘the inner brought the outer into life’;
I found the light within the light of day,
The Consolation of Philosophy,
Turning a page in Cambridge, found my way,
My mind delighting in discovery,
As love of learning turned to learning love
And explanation deepened mystery,
Drawing me out beyond what I could prove
Towards the next adventure, every chance
Discovery a sweet come-hither wave,
Philosophy a kind of circle dance,
Weaving between the present and the past,
The whole truth present in a single glance
That looked on me and everything in Christ!
Threefold Beholding, look me into being,
Make me in Love again from first to last
And let me still partake your holy seeing
Beyond the shifting shadow of the earth,
Minute particulars, eternal in their being,
Forming themselves into a single path
From heaven to earth and back again to heaven,
All patterned and perfected, from each birth
To each fruition, and all freely given
To glory in and give the glory back!
Call me again to set out from this haven
And follow Truth along her shining track.
9 The Rose
I come now to the final part my sequence of nine poems reflecting on the exprerience of reading, and re-reading Dante’s Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante has taken us to the very limits of human thought and expression, to the brink of a reality which is beyond language, and yet which is the true source of all reality. That source is Love, ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, and the whole purpose of the poem is that we learn and choose also to be moved by, and find our peace, in that Love.
To describe his journey, Dante used the astronomy of his day, but the truth of his message does not depend on one scientific model, or another, but on what lies behind the reality they model. In this poem I have tried to hint at the exprerience of reading Dante with our own, equally marvelous and mysterious cosmology in mind.
as usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button.
A white rose opens in a quiet arbour
Where I sit reading Dante, Paradise
Unfolding in me, opens hour by hour,
In sunlight and amidst the hum of bees
On a late afternoon. I think of how
Everything flowers, the whole universe
Itself is still unfolding even now
Sprung from a stem of singularity
Which petals time and space. I think of how
The very elements that let my body be
Began and will continue in the stars
Whose light and distance frame our mystery,
And how my shadowed heart still loves, still bears
With every beat that animates my being,
Eternal yearnings through the turning years.
I turn back to the lines that light my seeing
And lift me to the limits of all thought
And long that I might also find that freeing
And enabling Love, and so be caught
And lifted into His renewing Heaven.
Evening glimmers, and the stars come out,
Venus is shining clear, my prayers are woven
Into a sounding song, a symphony,
As all creation gives back what is given
In music made to praise the Mystery
Who is both gift and giver. Something stirs
A grace in me beyond my memory
I close the book and look up at the stars.
If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.
I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here
If you missed the earlier episodes, here are the links to the other poems in this sequence:
Previous poems in this Dante Series: