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Beatrice and the Ineffable Smile:
Canto XXIII of Paradise

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

Just as a bird that stands watch to ensure
__the safety of her brood, beside the nest
__throughout the night which hides all things from her,
who, eager to behold them after rest
__and seek for them the next day’s nourishment—
__hard labor for her, yet a labor blessed—
awaits the day upon a bough, ardent
__with love of them and love, too, of the sun,
__and sees at last the first glint it has sent:
just so my lady waited, on and on, __Beatrice
__erect and eager, watching the zone of sky
__where sol stands highest, the meridian.
And, watching her sweet expectation, I
__became like one, while longing for a thing,
__is still content: a hope will satisfy.
But time went quickly by, this time awaiting,
__between the wishing for and wish, I mean:
__before our eyes the sky was lightening.
And Beatrice: “At last, you now have seen
__the host of Christ’s own triumph, all the fruit
__reaped by the turning spheres, all who’ve ever been!”
Her face glowed with a joy then absolute;
__her eyes were full of light, so bright and keen.
__I must pass on. No words I find will suit.
As when the moon is full and all’s serene,
__Diana smiles, and nymphs, as she bade,
__will paint the sky like one vast fresco scene,
and throw a thousand lights upon the shade,
__I saw one sun that lit all, as our own
__lights all the lustrous bodies on parade:
through all that living brilliance, one light shone.
__This piercing Substance was so bright and clear, __Christ
__this light my eyesight had fully undone.
O Beatrice, sweet guide of mine, so dear!
__She said to me: “What overwhelms you is
__a power that no mortal eyes can bear.
Here is the wisdom and the strength no less
__than that which opened earth to Heaven’s way.
__For so long there had been desire for this.”
And just as from a cloud a fire may
__break and spread into a burning ball
__and travel downward, nature disobey: __fire naturally rises
just so, my mind within that festival
__of joy expanded till it burst from me,
__and what it then became I can’t recall.
“Open your eyes and see my full beauty:
__you’ve seen such things whose power now will let
__you bear the smile of my ecstasy.”
As one whose mind has caused him to forget
__a vision, and who must then strive in vain
__to somehow bring back what senses omit,
was I when offered this, now to obtain
__a sight sublime, which ever will belong
__within the book of what won’t pass again.
If all those tongues were now to sound a song, __angelic choir
__which Polyhymnia and her sisterhood __Muse of sacred song
__had given sweetest milk to make them strong,
to help me sing of her, we never could
__tell part of what is true in that blessed smile,
__nor how her face then glowed with God’s own good.
Just so, that Heaven’s rendered in my style,
__my consecrated poem must leap at times,
__as travelers will o’er stones once in a while.
Who sees the weighty subject of these rhymes
__and sees the mortal shoulders it must bear,
__atremble, will find no poetic crimes.
The waters that my bark is plowing here
__is no sea for small craft, is not a place
__for one who will not work, who shirks in fear.
“Why are you more enamored of my face __Beatrice
__than of this lovely garden? Turn you toward
__these blossoms in the splendor of Christ’s rays.
Here is the rose in which the Holy Word __the Virgin Mary and Christ, the Logos
__became incarnate; here the lilies blow __the Apostles
__whose fragrance was what from them first was heard.”
Thus Beatrice. To her good counsel now
__I promptly yielded, raised my feeble eyes
__once more to battle with that fiery glow.
I’ve seen the sun through partly clouded skies
__irradiate a flower-filled meadow
__with my sight shaded from the glorious blaze:
just so, I saw a host of spirits below
__the rays that ardently streamed from on high,
__yet could not find the source that lit them so.
O kindly Power that they’re imprinted by,
__you raised yourself and drew yourself away
__so that my eyes might see or at least try.
The name of that fair flower to whom I pray __the Virgin Mary
__each morning and each evening moved me so
__that I had fixed upon the brightest ray;
and when my sight had been allowed to know
__the wherefore, how much, by what holy name
__that conquered there as it did here below,
then from the heavenly heights a bright torch came
__and formed a circle and around her wound,
__a ring in shape, a crown of living flame.
Whatever melody is dulcet sound
__to lull the soul down here, warm with quiet fire,
__would be as thunder, softer sounds all drowned,
compared against the music of that lyre
__by which I saw the purest jewel crowned,
__by whom the brightest Heaven is sapphire.
“I am angelic love, which gyres around __the angel Gabriel
__the womb that breathed forth our high ecstasy,
__the dwelling place where our desire was found.
And, Queen of Heaven, I shall always be
__around till you, after your Son, are among
__the brightest lights, enhancing divinity.”__ the Empyrean
Thus the enwrapping hymn that had been sung
__revealed itself, and all the other rays
__resounded when Maria’s name was rung.
The royal cloak enfolding every blaze __the Primum Mobile
__of every turning sphere, more burning, more
__quickening, nearest to God’s breath and ways,
had high above us its internal shore,
__beyond a distance that must needs impede
__a mortal vision, what I had eyes for.
And so these eyes of mine did not succeed
__in following the Lady flame adorns
__as she rose after her own blessèd Seed.
And as a baby stretches out his arms
__toward mother, who has always kept him fed,
__with gestures shows the love that always warms,
each of those incandescent lights then spread
__its high and rising flame in such a way
__their love for Mother could not be gainsaid.
And still within my view they chose to stay,
__singing “Regina coeli,” so sweetly, so __“Queen of Heaven”
__that my delight has never passed away.
Oh, what abundance, what an overflow
__within those rich and fertile arks, who on
__this earth the seeds for Christ would ever sow!
They live now up in Heaven, labors done,
__enjoying all the gold that they spurned there,
__the treasures weeping bought in Babylon. __in their earthly exile
And he now triumphs on the highest chair __St. Peter
__under the Lady’s Son, among the victories
__of counsels old and new, and they all share__ Old and New Testaments
the glories of which he holds the golden keys.

.

Original Italian

Come l’augello, intra l’amate fronde,
posato al nido de’ suoi dolci nati
la notte che le cose ci nasconde,

che, per veder li aspetti disïati
e per trovar lo cibo onde li pasca,
in che gravi labor li sono aggrati,

previene il tempo in su aperta frasca,
e con ardente affetto il sole aspetta,
fiso guardando pur che l’alba nasca;

così la donna mïa stava eretta
e attenta, rivolta inver’ la plaga
sotto la quale il sol mostra men fretta:

sì che, veggendola io sospesa e vaga,
fecimi qual è quei che disïando
altro vorria, e sperando s’appaga.

Ma poco fu tra uno e altro quando,
del mio attender, dico, e del vedere
lo ciel venir più e più rischiarando;

e Bëatrice disse: “Ecco le schiere
del trïunfo di Cristo e tutto ’l frutto
ricolto del girar di queste spere!”

Pariemi che ’l suo viso ardesse tutto,
e li occhi avea di letizia sì pieni,
che passarmen convien sanza costrutto.

Quale ne’ plenilunïi sereni
Trivïa ride tra le ninfe etterne
che dipingon lo ciel per tutti i seni,

vid’ i’ sopra migliaia di lucerne
un sol che tutte quante l’accendea,
come fa ’l nostro le viste superne;

1e per la viva luce trasparea
la lucente sustanza tanto chiara
nel viso mio, che non la sostenea.

Oh Beatrice, dolce guida e cara!
Ella mi disse: “Quel che ti sobranza
è virtù da cui nulla si ripara.

Quivi è la sapïenza e la possanza
ch’aprì le strade tra ’l cielo e la terra,
onde fu già sì lunga disïanza.”

Come foco di nube si diserra
per dilatarsi sì che non vi cape,
e fuor di sua natura in giù s’atterra,

la mente mia così, tra quelle dape
fatta più grande, di sé stessa uscìo,
e che si fesse rimembrar non sape.

“Apri li occhi e riguarda qual son io;
tu hai vedute cose, che possente
se’ fatto a sostener lo riso mio.”

Io era come quei che si risente
di visïone oblita e che s’ingegna
indarno di ridurlasi a la mente,

quand’ io udi’ questa proferta, degna
di tanto grato, che mai non si stingue
del libro che ’l preterito rassegna.

Se mo sonasser tutte quelle lingue
che Polimnïa con le suore fero
del latte lor dolcissimo più pingue,

per aiutarmi, al millesmo del vero
non si verria, cantando il santo riso
e quanto il santo aspetto facea mero;

e così, figurando il paradiso,
convien saltar lo sacrato poema,
come chi trova suo cammin riciso.

Ma chi pensasse il ponderoso tema
e l’omero mortal che se ne carca,
nol biasmerebbe se sott’ esso trema:

non è pareggio da picciola barca
quel che fendendo va l’ardita prora,
né da nocchier ch’a sé medesmo parca.

“Perché la faccia mia sì t’innamora,
che tu non ti rivolgi al bel giardino
che sotto i raggi di Cristo s’infiora?

Quivi è la rosa in che ’l verbo divino
carne si fece; quivi son li gigli
al cui odor si prese il buon cammino.”

Così Beatrice; e io, che a’ suoi consigli
tutto era pronto, ancora mi rendei
a la battaglia de’ debili cigli.

Come a raggio di sol, che puro mei
per fratta nube, già prato di fiori
vider, coverti d’ombra, li occhi miei;

vid’ io così più turbe di splendori,
folgorate di sù da raggi ardenti,
sanza veder principio di folgóri.

O benigna vertù che sì li ’mprenti,
sù t’essaltasti, per largirmi loco
a li occhi lì che non t’eran possenti.

Il nome del bel fior ch’io sempre invoco
e mane e sera, tutto mi ristrinse
l’animo ad avvisar lo maggior foco;

e come ambo le luci mi dipinse
il quale e il quanto de la viva stella
che là sù vince come qua giù vinse,

per entro il cielo scese una facella,
formata in cerchio a guisa di corona,
e cinsela e girossi intorno ad ella.

Qualunque melodia più dolce suona
qua giù e più a sé l’anima tira,
parrebbe nube che squarciata tona,

comparata al sonar di quella lira
onde si coronava il bel zaffiro
del quale il ciel più chiaro s’inzaffira.

“Io sono amore angelico, che giro
l’alta letizia che spira del ventre
che fu albergo del nostro disiro;

e girerommi, donna del ciel, mentre
che seguirai tuo figlio, e farai dia
più la spera suprema perché lì entre.”

Così la circulata melodia
si sigillava, e tutti li altri lumi
facean sonare il nome di Maria.

Lo real manto di tutti i volumi
del mondo, che più ferve e più s’avviva
ne l’alito di Dio e nei costumi,

avea sopra di noi l’interna riva
tanto distante, che la sua parvenza,
là dov’ io era, ancor non appariva:

però non ebber li occhi miei potenza
di seguitar la coronata fiamma
che si levò appresso sua semenza.

E come fantolin che ’nver’ la mamma
tende le braccia, poi che ’l latte prese,
per l’animo che ’nfin di fuor s’infiamma;

ciascun di quei candori in sù si stese
con la sua cima, sì che l’alto affetto
ch’elli avieno a Maria mi fu palese.

Indi rimaser lì nel mio cospetto,
“Regina celi” cantando sì dolce,
che mai da me non si partì ’l diletto.

Oh quanta è l’ubertà che si soffolce
in quelle arche ricchissime che fuoro
a seminar qua giù buone bobolce!

Quivi si vive e gode del tesoro
che s’acquistò piangendo ne lo essilio
di Babillòn, ove si lasciò l’oro.

Quivi trïunfa, sotto l’alto Filio
di Dio e di Maria, di sua vittoria,
e con l’antico e col novo concilio,

colui che tien le chiavi di tal gloria.

.

.

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. Monika Cooper

    Thank you for another canto from your Divine Comedy translation. Almost every morning this May I’m raising “my feeble eyes / once more to battle with that fiery glow.” Mary’s month: there’s something to that.

    I love the part with Diana’s nymphs painting the sky like a fresco, all of those dancing pearl-tints, and the sun so gentle there she’s compared to the moon. Or is it the sun? I guess it is the sacred substance of Christ Himself: perhaps the disc of the Host is alluded to. What is more gentle than That?

    “Their love for Mother.” That’s a nice touch, using Mother as a name, without article of any kind. The incandescent lights: I wonder who are they are? Angels, with Gabriel?

    The translation has momentum: it carries the reader, so she doesn’t have to work, or if she does, at least she doesn’t need to “shirk in fear.” Love is a smile we begin on earth, to finish properly there, where day breaks and the shadows flee.

    I think Dante’s own Muse has been whispering helpfully to you.

    Reply
  2. Russell Spera

    Another excellent Canto! The terza rima reads so smooth, great flow. You made a difficult task seem easy. Looking forward to more.

    Reply
  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is so very beautiful and impressive! “just so, my mind within that festival / of joy expanded till it burst from me, / and what it then became I can’t recall.” — is among my favorite lines, though there are many. I can’t even imagine the poetic multi-tasking a translator must have to do, especially to keep the terza rima. Dante must be extremely pleased.
    I also love the ingenious extended metaphor of your poem “Evening, Washington Metro” in First Things.

    Reply
  4. Stephen Binns

    Thanks to all from your gracious and graceful words and for your impressively attentive reading.

    I, in turn, have enjoyed all of your own work in Classical Poets, and yours, Cynthia, in First Things, especially “Ascension Day.” I attend the Latin Mass. If you do as well, I hope that your choir is as fine as ours, which is pretty close to Polyhymnal (if that can be a word).

    My daily descents into the Washington Metro may have been an inspiration for starting on “Inferno.” Every face down there wears a spectral glow, and every right arm is crooked like that of a Church Doctor, holding his theology . . . and yet it doesn’t seem to be Paradise. So where am I then?

    Thank you, Monika, for bringing to mind my favorite Hopkins poem, “May Magnificat”:

    Is it only its being brighter
    Than the most are must delight her?
    Is it opportunest
    And flowers finds soonest?

    Pax vobiscum!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you very much, Stephen; I’m delighted that you are one of my readers, and as delighted to be one of yours. Actually I am an Anglican (of the traditional variety — 1928 Book of Common Prayer), and have certainly heard a lot of celestial-sounding polyphonic church music (which wasn’t exactly what you were asking; I had to look up polyhymnal!) Musicality in my poems is always one of my top goals. Pax vobiscum.

      Reply
      • Stephen Binns

        Thanks again, Cynthia.

        Ah. Anglican. I should have known from your well-chosen epigraphs from Eliot.

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