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Beatrice Does Not Smile:
Canto XXI of Paradise

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

And now my eyes were fastened once again
__upon my lady’s face, and all the while __Beatrice
__my soul could not another sight retain.
She was not smiling. “Were I to smile,
__she said, “you would be struck like Semele __mortal felled by the full sight of Jupiter
__when she dissolved into that cindered pile.
My loveliness grows greater, as you see,
__upon each step of this eternity,
__and as we rise it flares more vividly.
Such splendor if not tempered would collapse
__your mortal strength, and scatter your weak sense
__like fronds from branches felled by thunderclaps.
We’re lifted to the seventh eminence,
__which breast of ardent Lion now enwraps __constellation Leo
__to meld his force with that of this bright sphere. __planet Saturn
You must now concentrate, both eyes and mind,
__reflecting on the figures that appear
__within the globe, however undefined.”
Whoever knows her face—God’s own blessed mirror—
__will know what pasturage I left behind
__when I, for novel nurture, turned away.
He’d realize how close to perfect bliss
__it was to please my mentor and obey,
__while weighing both the sides—that joy and this.
Within the crystal bearing name and sway,
__as it moves round our world, of that highness __the god Saturn
__who ruled when wickedness was not yet known,
I saw a thing that shone with golden light,
__a ladder rising, standing on its own,
__which reached beyond the reaches of my sight.
I saw so many splendors spinning down,
__I thought that everything distinctly bright
__in Heaven had been fused in that one ray.
We’ve seen how natural instinct often brings
__jackdaws together at the start of day:
__they whirl as one to warm their dew-chilled wings.
Some depart and some return and others stay,
__persisting in precise meanderings,
__as if the motion were itself a home:
just so, an instinct seemed at work among
__those shimmering essences; like birds they’d come
__and move together at a certain rung.
One broke and landed toward us. I stayed mum.
__The thought to which I did not give a tongue:
__This glistening shows the love you have for me.
For she from whom I took the how and when
__of all discourse stood just as silently.
__Despite desire, I did not then begin.
But she who sees as He Himself can see
__saw clearly what my withheld wish had been.
__“Release,” she said, “this speech for which you burn.”
So I began: “I am not merited
__to question you, blessed spirit, nor to earn
__reply. But for the sake of her instead, __Beatrice
who granted me these words, give me to learn
__why you’ve stepped from the mass in which you hid—
__why you’ve come down and placed yourself so near.
And tell me why this stillness must suffice,
__while on the lower planets one can hear
__the dulcet symphony of Paradise.”
“Your vision’s mortal. Is not too your ear?”
__he said. “No music sounds for you; likewise
__no smiles fall from your guide Beatrice.
Down through the grades of this most sacred stair
__I’ve come only to bring you happiness,
__by speech and by the mantling light I wear,
not out of greater love, I must confess,
__for just as much or more love is found there
__above, which all those flames make manifest.
This height of love which prompts us all to serve
__the rule of providence needs no behest—
__it’s love that shapes all matters you observe.”
“I see right well,” I said, “O brilliance blessed,
__that liberated love, without reserve,
__suffices in this court to do His will.
But this is what is hard to comprehend:
__why you alone were destined to fulfill
__this office, out of all this sacred band.”
Before I finished, like a grinder’s mill,
__the light was moving in a rapid wend,
__awhirl around an axle of its own.
And then the love that was within replied:
__“The Light that is supreme comes beaming down
__to penetrate this light in which I hide.
Conjoined with that great power, I am shown
__the highest essence, whence all lights derive, __the Primum Mobile
__so far above myself do I then rise.
And thus my happiness, this flame of mine—
__because my sight, as much as He supplies,
__is equaled by the light with which I shine.
But even Seraph, with most God-fixed eyes,
__or she with vision clearest, most divine, __the Virgin Mary
__could not explain these things to you, because
the mystery you seek solution to
__lies deep in the abyss of Primal Laws,
__so deep it is divorced from human view.
Report to men on what my answer was
__when you return, lest others after you
__presume to delve for matters so profound.
On earth the mind is smoke and here a light.
__What depths, then, could it ever plumb or sound,
__not seeing them from this eternal height?”
His words had kept my own in silence bound.
__I asked no more of this, but what I might:
__just who he was, or rather, who he’d been.
“Rocks rise between the two shores that you know, __the Apennines
__and not far from your birthplace they begin __Florence
__to rise so high that thunder roars below.
They form a ridge, Catria, o’er a glen
__which holds a hermitage, where long ago __Santa Croce, in Umbria
__the brothers were disposed only to prayer.”
And thus began the third tale that he told.
__Continuing, he uttered: “It was there
__I served the Lord, so fixed and firm my hold
that, fed with olive food and that so spare,
__I lightly passed my days through heat and cold,
__content with contemplation and no more.
That cloister once supplied a fertile yield
__for Paradise, but now the soil is poor,
__and very soon the truth will be revealed. __by divine judgment
Peter Damian I was then, long before, __saint of the eleventh century
__in Mary’s Adriatic house, I sealed __Santa Maria Pomposa, in Ravenna
__and signed myself as Petrus Peccator. __Peter Sinner
When little life remained to me, a curse:
__I was required to wear the scarlet hat,
__which passes down from one bad wearer to worse.
Cephas came unshod and gaunt, as did that __St. Peter
__great ark and vessel of the Holy Ghost; __St. Paul
__they ate at any inn’s board where they sat.
The modern pastors need strong buttresses:
__warder at fore and one on either side,
__a man behind to bear the train, no less.
Their mantles drape the plodders that they ride
__(O Patience, can you bear the shamelessness?)
__and two great beasts clop by beneath one hide.”
At this, the flames upon their apogee
__began to whirl, then moved down grade by grade.
__With every spin, they glowed more handsomely.
They clustered round the light and there they stayed,
__and then—the earth provides no simile—
__they cried with such profundity of sound
I comprehended nothing, thunder-drowned.

.

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Original Italian

Già eran li occhi miei rifissi al volto
de la mia donna, e l’animo con essi,
e da ogne altro intento s’era tolto.

quella non ridea; ma “S’io ridessi,”
mi cominciò, “tu ti faresti quale
fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
de l’etterno palazzo più s’accende,
com’ hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
che ’l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende.

Noi sem levati al settimo splendore,
che sotto ’l petto del Leone ardente
raggia mo misto giù del suo valore.

Ficca di retro a li occhi tuoi la mente,
e fa di quelli specchi a la figura
che ’n questo specchio ti sarà parvente.”

Qual savesse qual era la pastura
del viso mio ne l’aspetto beato
quand’ io mi trasmutai ad altra cura,

conoscerebbe quanto m’era a grato
ubidire a la mia celeste scorta,
contrapesando l’un con l’altro lato.

Dentro al cristallo che ’l vocabol porta,
cerchiando il mondo, del suo caro duce
sotto cui giacque ogne malizia morta,

di color d’oro in che raggio traluce
vid’ io uno scaleo eretto in suso
tanto, che nol seguiva la mia luce.

Vidi anche per li gradi scender giuso
tanti splendor, ch’io pensai ch’ogne lume
che par nel ciel, quindi fosse diffuso.

E come, per lo natural costume,
le pole insieme, al cominciar del giorno,
si movono a scaldar le fredde piume;

poi altre vanno via sanza ritorno,
altre rivolgon sé onde son mosse,
e altre roteando fan soggiorno;

tal modo parve me che quivi fosse
in quello sfavillar che ’nsieme venne,
sì come in certo grado si percosse.

E quel che presso più ci si ritenne,
si fé sì chiaro, ch’io dicea pensando:
‘Io veggio ben l’amor che tu m’accenne.

Ma quella ond’ io aspetto il come e ’l quando
del dire e del tacer, si sta; ond’ io,
contra ’l disio, fo ben ch’io non dimando’.

Per ch’ella, che vedëa il tacer mio
nel veder di colui che tutto vede,
mi disse: “Solvi il tuo caldo disio.”

E io incominciai: “La mia mercede
non mi fa degno de la tua risposta;
ma per colei che ’l chieder mi concede,

vita beata che ti stai nascosta
dentro a la tua letizia, fammi nota
la cagion che sì presso mi t’ha posta

e dì perché si tace in questa rota
la dolce sinfonia di paradiso,
che giù per l’altre suona sì divota.”

“Tu hai l’udir mortal sì come il viso,”
rispuose a me; “onde qui non si canta
per quel che Bëatrice non ha riso.

Giù per li gradi de la scala santa
discesi tanto sol per farti festa
col dire e con la luce che mi ammanta;

né più amor mi fece esser più presta,
ché più e tanto amor quinci sù ferve,
sì come il fiammeggiar ti manifesta.

Ma l’alta carità, che ci fa serve
pronte al consiglio che ’l mondo governa,
sorteggia qui sì come tu osserve.”

“Io veggio ben,” diss’ io, “sacra lucerna,
come libero amore in questa corte
basta a seguir la provedenza etterna;

ma questo è quel ch’a cerner mi par forte,
perché predestinata fosti sola
a questo officio tra le tue consorte.”

Né venni prima a l’ultima parola,
che del suo mezzo fece il lume centro,
girando sé come veloce mola;

poi rispuose l’amor che v’era dentro:
«Luce divina sopra me s’appunta,
penetrando per questa in ch’io m’inventro,

la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
mi leva sopra me tanto, ch’i’ veggio
la somma essenza de la quale è munta.

Quinci vien l’allegrezza ond’ io fiammeggio;
per ch’a la vista mia, quant’ ella è chiara,
la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio.

Ma quell’ alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
quel serafin che ’n Dio più l’occhio ha fisso,
a la dimanda tua non satisfara,

però che sì s’innoltra ne lo abisso
de l’etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
che da ogne creata vista è scisso.

E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi,
questo rapporta, sì che non presumma
a tanto segno più mover li piedi.

La mente, che qui luce, in terra fumma;
onde riguarda come può là giùe
quel che non pote perché ’l ciel l’assumma».

Sì mi prescrisser le parole sue,
ch’io lasciai la quistione e mi ritrassi
a dimandarla umilmente chi fue.

“Tra ’ due liti d’Italia surgon sassi,
e non molto distanti a la tua patria,
tanto che ’ troni assai suonan più bassi,

e fanno un gibbo che si chiama Catria,
di sotto al quale è consecrato un ermo,
che suole esser disposto a sola latria.”

Così ricominciommi il terzo sermo;
e poi, continüando, disse: “Quivi
al servigio di Dio mi fe’ sì fermo,

che pur con cibi di liquor d’ulivi
lievemente passava caldi e geli,
contento ne’ pensier contemplativi.

Render solea quel chiostro a questi cieli
fertilemente; e ora è fatto vano,
sì che tosto convien che si riveli.

In quel loco fu’ io Pietro Damiano,
e Pietro Peccator fu’ ne la casa
di Nostra Donna in sul lito adriano.

Poca vita mortal m’era rimasa,
quando fui chiesto e tratto a quel cappello,
che pur di male in peggio si travasa.

Venne Cefàs e venne il gran vasello
de lo Spirito Santo, magri e scalzi,
prendendo il cibo da qualunque ostello.

Or voglion quinci e quindi chi rincalzi
li moderni pastori e chi li meni,
tanto son gravi, e chi di rietro li alzi.

Cuopron d’i manti loro i palafreni,
che due bestie van sott’ una pelle:
oh pazïenza che tanto sostieni!”

A questa voce vid’ io più fiammelle
di grado in grado scendere e girarsi,
e ogne giro le facea più belle.

Dintorno a questa vennero e fermarsi,
e fero un grido di sì alto suono,
che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;
né io lo ’ntesi, sì mi vinse il tuono.

.

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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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6 Responses

  1. Russell

    Excellent! I like the natural flow of the lines. I think the use of defective terza rima (aba cdc efe…) was an effective work around to the otherwise typically unsuccessful translations that try for terza rima in English.

    Reply
  2. Allegra Silberstein

    Beautiful translation that keeps the music of the lines. Thank you…Allegra

    Reply
  3. Monika Cooper

    Really fine. Deserves to be in a book with the rest of the Cantos and real paper pages to read it aloud from.

    The jackdaw simile came out so well. Is it usually translated “jackdaw”? I don’t remember seeing that before. I like it: the homely touches in the Paradiso are so needed for refreshment from refreshment.

    The joy sacrificed for joy, the pleasure of obedience: Dante’s thought is profound there and the translation follows it cleanly and perfectly.

    Dante’s secret thought, that he doesn’t give tongue to, but he does give to his readers in a written posy (“This glistening shows the love you have for me.”) reads as if out of the inner rim of a golden ring.

    Reply
  4. Cheryl Corey

    Very readable, and I think it’s great that SCP provides an opportunity for longer works to be posted here. I also like the way the notes appear in grayscale.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Binns

    Heartfelt thanks to all for your kind words and close reading.

    Great question, Monika! John Ciardi translates the bird as “grackle,” perhaps for the syllables. Longfellow has it as “the rooks,” which seems to me imprecise. Dante’s birds move rather nimbly, and rooks are quite enormous things. Mandelbaum has it as “jackdaw,” which is, I think, the true choice.

    Dante’s word is “pola” (or rather, as he has it in the plural, “pole”), which translates specifically as “jackdaw”: a small crow found throughout Europe and Asia, but nowhere else. My understanding is that “pola” is still in the Italian language but is archaic, and that the word “taccola” is now more common.

    Reply
    • Monika Cooper

      Thank you: so interesting! If Dante was “the last person to know everything,” you must learn a lot translating his poem.

      Reply

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