Beatrice Smiles: Canto XXXI of Purgatory

by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
translated by Stephen Binns

“You, on the other side of the sacred river,” __Lethe
__she called to me, and sharply to the point, __Beatrice
__after her blade’s edge left a cut so bitter,
and then commenced: “Say, say, if my account
__of your misdeeds is true. If so, they must be
__confessed by you, and to their full amount.”
My strength was gone. And then, confusingly,
__the organs of my speech moved, but no word
__found any utterance. And briefly she
gave sufferance to this, and then I heard:
__“Respond, you of poor memory, confess.
__Lethe awaits. Your thoughts are undeterred.”
From somewhere in me seemed to come a “Yes.”
__Confusion and my fear had left me wan.
__The movement of my mouth left her to guess.
And as a crossbow breaks when it is drawn
__with cord too tensely strung, the bow too taut,
__and bolt strikes limply, just so I had begun
to break beneath this burden, which had brought
__a rain of tears, sighs bitterly suspired.
__In their release my voice weakly died out.
And so she said: “In me what you’ve desired
__has left you longing for the largest good,
__which leaves us naught to which to be aspired.
What trenches did you find across your road,
__what lengths of chains had caused you to go back
__or go no farther than where you then stood?
And what charms did you find to so attract
__you to the others; what did they show, and why,
__to draw their eyes to you, did you so act?”
And after heaving out a long-drawn sigh,
__I hardly had a breath more left to me;
__my lips had trouble forming a reply.
With tears I said: “The things a man may see
__before him, present, those turned me aside
__when your face was hid away. All falsity!” __when she died
And she: “Had you held silent or denied
__what you now say, your guilt would still be known:
__such is the judge from whom our sins can’t hide!
But when the accusation is our own
__is when that highest court accepts remorse;
__the blade is blunted by the grinder’s stone.
However, so your sinful, wrongful course
__brings hardening shame, and helps you to defend
__against the Sirens, your will to reinforce,
leave off your cause of crying and attend
__to learn how my departure from my flesh
__ought to have led you to a better end.
Nothing in art or nature did you relish
__so much as sight of body once so fair,
__which now lies in the earth—your deepest wish.
When earthly beauty was no longer there,
__but failed you when I died, what mortal things
__could stir desire, cause you to even care?
When first the arrows flew from those first strings,
__your every thought should then have been to go
__after me, now free. Nor should your wings
have been so weighted down by joys below—
__by any maid or other vanity
__ephemeral—to take another blow.
The fledgling waits around for two or three
__arrows, while in sight of a full-grown bird
__the nets may spread, bolts shoot, but haplessly.”
As scolded children will not say a word,
__but recognize their fault and tearfully,
__with head bowed as the reprimand is heard,
so did I stand. She said: “If hearing me
__has given you such grief, raise your beard and
__I’ll show you greater cause for misery.”
The winds that blow from Iarbus’s land __Libya, in the Aeneid
__or northern gales meet less resistance in
__uprooting oaks than mine at her command.
But as she asked I lifted up my chin,
__and when by “beard” she really meant my face,
__I saw: I should act as any full-grown men.
And when my eyes I finally could raise,
__I saw the primal beings, now at rest, __angels
__who’d strewn their blossoms round her bankside place.
My vision, hesitant, unsure at best,
__then saw the thing with two natures in one, __gryphon, representing the dual nature of Christ
__and saw that she had turned to face the beast.
Beneath her veil, at her distance upon
__the bank, that face surpassed her first, and more
__than her beauty over others once had done.
Now feelings of repentance pricked me sore,
__and everything became my enemy,
__all that I’d ever dearly loved before.
Remorse bit at the very heart of me.
__I fell into a faint, and she knew best
__how I felt, who’d applied this remedy.
When blood was coursing through my veins at last,
__the lady whom I found alone had got __later identified as one Matelda, a puzzle to scholars
__herself above me. “Hold on!” she cried. “Hold fast!”
She’d dunked me in the stream up to my throat __in the Lethe
__and pulling me behind she made her way
__across the surface like a lovely boat.
And near the blessèd bank I heard her say,
__pronounced in tones so dulcet and serene
__I can’t recall it to describe: “Asperges me.”__ intoned at the sprinkling of water before Mass
Then that sweet lady took my head between
__her arms and plunged me down in her embrace,
__so deep I swallowed water. Newly clean,
I was drawn out, led over to a place
__where, dancing in a circle, four maids were. __cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance
__I went within their arms, an interlace.
“On earth we’re nymphs, but in the sky appear
__as stars. Before your Beatrice was born
__we were appointed handmaidens to her.
We’ll lead you to her eyes. You will discern
__the joyous dazzle of them. But first those three __theological virtues: faith, hope, charity
__will show you how to see. You first must learn.”
Thus they began with song. They then took me
__along with them up to the gryphon’s breast, __creature of a dual nature, symbolic of Christ
__where Beatrice was standing patiently.
“Look deep, look well, and give your eyes no rest.
__We’ve brought you here before the emerald eyes
__whence Love shot shafts into your armored vest.”
Desire fired me. I could not prize
__my eyes from hers, and hers were turned upon
__the gryphon. And just as the sun will blaze
within a glass, the beast in those eyes shone,
__the twofold creature with its double nature,
__and it was showing both, and one by one.
Imagine, reader, what I now will share:
__I saw it did not change within my sight,
__yet change came after change within her mirror. __within Beatrice’s eyes
How stupefying strange! Imagine my delight
__in tasting of that nourishment, that food
__which satisfies yet sharpens appetite.
That other trio obviously stood
__in higher and still holier eminence.
__They danced a dance as only angels could.
“Turn, Beatrice, your sacred eyes and glance,”
__they sang, “here at your faithful one, look well.
__To see you he has made a sore advance!
Graciously of your graciousness unveil
__your mouth for him, so that he now may see
__your second beauty, which you still conceal.” __the beauty of her smile comes next
O splendor of what shines sempiternally!
__A poet who has paled beneath the shade
__of Parnassus or drunk from its well would be
quite at a loss, would find his powers stayed,
__to represent her blessed appearance there.
__The very heavens’ harmony was made
more pure when she brought smiles to the air.



Italian Original

“O tu che se’ di là dal fiume sacro,”
volgendo suo parlare a me per punta,
che pur per taglio m’era paruto acro,

ricominciò, seguendo sanza cunta,
“dì, dì se questo è vero; a tanta accusa
tua confession conviene esser congiunta”

Era la mia virtù tanto confusa,
che la voce si mosse, e pria si spense
che da li organi suoi fosse dischiusa.

Poco sofferse; poi disse: “Che pense?
Rispondi a me; ché le memorie triste
in te non sono ancor da l’acqua offense.”

Confusione e paura insieme miste
mi pinsero un tal “sì” fuor de la bocca,
al quale intender fuor mestier le viste.

Come balestro frange, quando scocca
da troppa tesa, la sua corda e l’arco,
e con men foga l’asta il segno tocca,

sì scoppia’ io sottesso grave carco,
fuori sgorgando lagrime e sospiri,
e la voce allentò per lo suo varco.

Ond’ ella a me: “Per entro i mie’ disiri,
che ti menavano ad amar lo bene
di là dal qual non è a che s’aspiri,

quai fossi attraversati o quai catene
trovasti, per che del passare innanzi
dovessiti così spogliar la spene?

E quali agevolezze o quali avanzi
ne la fronte de li altri si mostraro,
per che dovessi lor passeggiare anzi?”

Dopo la tratta d’un sospiro amaro,
a pena ebbi la voce che rispuose,
e le labbra a fatica la formaro.

Piangendo dissi: “Le presenti cose
col falso lor piacer volser miei passi,
tosto che ‘l vostro viso si nascose.”

Ed ella: “Se tacessi o se negassi
ciò che confessi, non fora men nota
la colpa tua: da tal giudice sassi!

Ma quando scoppia de la propria gota
l’accusa del peccato, in nostra corte
rivolge sé contra ‘l taglio la rota.

Tuttavia, perché mo vergogna porte
del tuo errore, e perché altra volta,
udendo le serene, sie più forte,

pon giù il seme del piangere e ascolta:
sì udirai come in contraria parte
mover dovieti mia carne sepolta.

Mai non t’appresentò natura o arte
piacer, quanto le belle membra in ch’io
rinchiusa fui, e che so’ ‘n terra sparte;

e se ‘l sommo piacer sì ti fallio
per la mia morte, qual cosa mortale
dovea poi trarre te nel suo disio?

Ben ti dovevi, per lo primo strale
de le cose fallaci, levar suso
di retro a me che non era più tale.

Non ti dovea gravar le penne in giuso,
ad aspettar più colpo, o pargoletta
o altra novità con sì breve uso.

Novo augelletto due o tre aspetta;
ma dinanzi da li occhi d’i pennuti
rete si spiega indarno o si saetta.”

Quali fanciulli, vergognando, muti
con li occhi a terra stannosi, ascoltando
e sé riconoscendo e ripentuti,

tal mi stav’ io; ed ella disse:
per udir se’ dolente, alza la barba,
e prenderai più doglia riguardando.”

Con men di resistenza si dibarba
robusto cerro, o vero al nostral vento
o vero a quel de la terra di Iarba,

ch’io non levai al suo comando il mento;
e quando per la barba il viso chiese,
conobbi il velen de l’argomento.

E come la mia faccia si distese,
posarsi quelle prime creature
da loro aspersïon l’occhio comprese;

e le mie luci, ancor poco sicure,
vider Beatrice volta in su la fiera
ch’è sola una persona in due nature.

Sotto ‘l suo velo e oltre la rivera
vincer pariemi più sé stessa antica,
vincer che l’altre qui, quand’ ella c’era.

Di penter sì mi punse ivi l’ortica,
che di tutte altre cose qual mi torse
più nel suo amor, più mi si fé nemica.

Tanta riconoscenza il cor mi morse,
ch’io caddi vinto; e quale allora femmi,
salsi colei che la cagion mi porse.

Poi, quando il cor virtù di fuor rendemmi,
la donna ch’io avea trovata sola
sopra me vidi, e dicea: “Tiemmi, tiemmi!”

Tratto m’avea nel fiume infin la gola,
e tirandosi me dietro sen giva
sovresso l’acqua lieve come scola.

Quando fui presso a la beata riva,
“Asperges me” sì dolcemente udissi,
che nol so rimembrar, non ch’io lo scriva.

La bella donna ne le braccia aprissi;
abbracciommi la testa e mi sommerse
ove convenne ch’io l’acqua inghiottissi.

Indi mi tolse, e bagnato m’offerse
dentro a la danza de le quattro belle;N
e ciascuna del braccio mi coperse.

“Noi siam qui ninfe e nel ciel siamo stelle;
pria che Beatrice discendesse al mondo,
fummo ordinate a lei per sue ancelle.

Merrenti a li occhi suoi; ma nel giocondo
lume ch’è dentro aguzzeranno i tuoi
le tre di là, che miran più profondo.”

Così cantando cominciaro; e poi
al petto del grifon seco menarmi,
ove Beatrice stava volta a noi.

Disser: “Fa che le viste non risparmi;
posto t’avem dinanzi a li smeraldi
ond’ Amor già ti trasse le sue armi.”

Mille disiri più che fiamma caldi
strinsermi li occhi a li occhi rilucenti,
che pur sopra ‘l grifone stavan saldi.

Come in lo specchio il sol, non altrimenti
la doppia fiera dentro vi raggiava,
or con altri, or con altri reggimenti.

Pensa, lettor, s’io mi maravigliava,
quando vedea la cosa in sé star queta,
e ne l’idolo suo si trasmutava.

Mentre che piena di stupore e lieta
l’anima mia gustava di quel cibo
che, saziando di sé, di sé asseta,

sé dimostrando di più alto tribo
ne li atti, l’altre tre si feroN avanti,
danzando al loro angelico caribo.

“Volgi, Beatrice, volgi li occhi santi,”
era la sua canzone, “al tuo fedele
che, per vederti, ha mossi passi tanti!

Per grazia fa noi grazia che disvele.
a lui la bocca tua, sì che discerna
la seconda bellezza che tu cele.”

O isplendor di viva luce etterna,
chi palido si fece sotto l’ombra
sì di Parnaso, o bevve in sua cisterna,

che non paresse aver la mente ingombra,
tentando a render te qual tu paresti
là dove armonizzando il ciel t’adombra,

quando ne l’aere aperto ti solvesti?



Stephen Binns is an editor at the Smithsonian (the institution, not the magazine). His most recently published poetry appeared in the January 2023 issue of First Things.

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7 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    I stand in awe of such a fastidious and melodious translation. Everything flowed beautifully. I can only imagine the time spent in doing this!

  2. Stephen Binns

    To all the members, and to those without,
    a heartfelt thanks for taking all the time
    upon this page within this last redoubt
    of speech’s music: meter, even rhyme.
    As talented Roy says, that music must be wrought
    as if by forge to get the thing sublime.
    Ciardi found that English was too poor
    of words that answer to another’s chime:
    he knocked and knocked upon each Latinate door
    and then gave up. Iambic’s uphill climb
    was his descending way to Hell’s dark core.
    Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom:
    a wearying, sometimes a trying chore,
    like stomping with one shoe across a room.
    Perhaps he tried another set of feet,
    old Edgar Poe’s trochaic, I’d assume,
    tried digging on that crazy backward beat:
    Boom-ba, boom-ba, boom-ba, boom-ba, boom-ba.
    But of the rhymes, if ne’er could thrine e’er meet,
    he compromised and gave us (without flaw)
    just the two, but still a necessary feat,
    for freedom needs a thing to flee, a law
    to float above, aloft, in wafts, a vapor.
    Gavotte needs discipline, as does a caper.
    Dante wrote a song, not a white paper.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I love this, especially the lines about Ciardi…. “Iambic’s uphill climb / was his descending way to Hell’s dark core.” 🙂

  3. Paul Buchheit

    Quite an accomplishment, Stephen. Good rhythm and rhyming, a remarkable effort, an enjoyable read.

  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    Delightful! I’m really impressed by the translations that are able to keep to the terza rima! I’m so glad I read this. Thank you, Stephen. I really liked “Evening, Washington Metro”, in First Things, as well.

  5. James Sale

    Love this, some beautifully rendered expressions and of course ‘beauty’ is the theme, and your elevated language catches much of the magic of this meeting. Of course, it is a prelude to an even greater scene – full of the most intense glory and pathos – when Beatrice smiles at him for the final time in Paradise – and turns away to the vision. Great work.

    • Stephen Binns

      Thanks so much, James, Cynthia, Paul, and Roy. You’re certainly right, James: that scene, in which Beatrice looks down from her place in the Eternal Rose, is heartbreakingly, achingly beautiful.

      And the works of all of you are achingly beautiful as well. I’ve enjoyed your own stuff in First Things, Cynthia. I live in Washington and got to meet R. R. Reno at their annual event here. A nice fellow.


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