Allen Mendelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1984
As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them—chore
that pleases her, however hard her labors—
as she awaits the sun with arm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:
so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.
(Canto XXIII, 1-15)
I think my first thought on finishing Paradiso was one of excited relief. More so than either of the proceeding canticles, Paradiso is difficult, necessitating frequent referencing of the endnotes, which in itself makes the reading slow-going. Richard of Caravana de recuerdos characterized it as “abstruse” which I find a particularly apt descriptor. It is not merely that there is less action and much more dialogue—primarily Dante’s theological viewpoints as expressed through his characters—but that the discussions often refer to texts or Medieval-era debates that, while perhaps commonly understood in the early 1300’s, are less familiar today. After flipping to the endnotes for the 100th or so time and seeing St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica referenced (typically for comparison or as Dante’s starting point), I began to feel that reading Paradiso could serve as a summary for the former. I certainly cannot imagine attempting Paradiso without any concept of the framework of the Christian belief system.
Looking back over the entirety of Divine Comedy, I am struck by what an incredible accomplishment it is. Dante’s biggest sin may have been his pride (as he acknowledged in Purgatorio)—and there is more than one instance where I marked my text noting evidence of his ego—but he was certainly not wrong in his belief that he was creating something worth reading. Over the course of three poems, he successfully created three distinct “worlds” or regions. There is no doubting that his Inferno is as different from his Paradiso as night is from day, and Purgatorio, a point between (although, saving Dante none might journey there from Inferno) is different yet again. He has created an epic journey—both for his pilgrim (Dante the character) and for his reader. There is an unbelievable integration of a diverse body of sources—classical, religious, philosophical. According to the end notes in my edition, the nine-line simile beginning Canto XXIII (above) makes over twelve references to other works!* And he manages to do all this while maintaining hendecasyllable meter and a terza rima rhyming pattern. Paradiso does see many declarations of his own inadequacy to tell of what he sees in Heaven (albeit, drawn in such a way to draw focus to the fact that he’s attempting this anyway—see the bit about ego), but at the same time his similes, his metaphors, his allusions all strive to give the reader a glimpse of what such a place much be like, and in such a measured manner to indicate a continuing journey upwards through the ever more wondrous levels of heaven. As mentioned previously, it is not always easy to read—allegory is clearly more important here than in Inferno or Purgatorio—but the measured accomplishment of it is incredible. I actually found myself in suspense wondering how he could possible portray the last sphere of Heaven, culminating in his vision of God.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Canto XXX 142-145)
I am glad I chose to undertake this trio of books. I don’t know that I would have finished the last had it not been for Richard’s read-along, but I don’t regret the time spent. It feels an accomplishment to have simply completed the entirety, but it also feels rewarding for the treasures found within the books. In some ways I still feel like I have Dante’s words spinning inside my head. It is so satisfying to have that continued presence of a masterpiece. This, I think, is why we read the classics.
* “In addition to identifying the matrix of the simile in Lactantius’ De Ave Phoenice (On the Phoenix), 39-42, Daniele Mattalia cites not less than six references to Virgil’s Georgics, five to the Aeneid, and one to Statius’ Achilleid.” (p 387, Bantam Classics Edition)