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Virgil Departs, Beatrice Arrives:
Canto XXX of Purgatory

by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
translated by Stephen Binns
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Now when the primal Heaven’s Septentrion—____seven lights of the Holy Spirit
__which does not rise nor set, and whose report
__goes unveiled to us but by mists of sin,
which guided every soul in that high court
__toward duty, as another seven do
__for sailors steering safely to their port—____the Big Dipper, used by navigators
came to a halt, and then those prophets true,____representing books of the Old Testament (Canto XXIX)
__who stood between the gryphon and the light,____creature of a dual nature, representing Christ
__turned to the chariot for rest. One who
seemed courier from Paradise’s height
__sang “Veni, sponsa, de Libano” thrice,____“Come, my bride, from Lebanon,” Song of Songs 4:8
__as did all of the others, just as bright.
As at the Final Trump, when bodies rise,
__all from their vaults and, with the slightest prod,
__breathe alleluia with their new-tuned sighs,
so on the sacred chariot, in laud,
__a hundred, ad vocem tanti senis,____“at the voice of so great an elder”
__the servants and the messengers of God.
And they all cried, “Benedictus qui venis,”____“Blessed is he who comes,”  Matthew 21:9
__and scattered all around a floral spray.
__Manibus date lilia plenis!____“Full hands give lilies,” Aeneid 883
Before now I have seen at break of day
__the eastern earthly sky glow red of rose
__and all the rest a blue serene display,
have seen the sun’s bright face wear vaporous clothes
__so that this temperance of light allowed
__the eyes for many minutes not to close:
just so, within a flower-laden cloud,
__which rose and fell by an angelic hand
__to drift within the chariot as sweet shroud,
and in a veil of white, with olive garland,____white, symbol of faith
__there came a lady, mantled all in green,____green, symbol of hope
__her dress beneath the mantle rubicund.____red, symbol of love
I felt—so many years had passed between
__the then and when I first met her presence____Beatrice
__and quivered, overcome with what I’d seen—
without more knowledge than the sight might sense,
__through hidden virtue flowing from her being,
__I felt the ancient love, its great puissance.
The instant that my eyes received the sting,
__that sweetest pain which pierced me at the first,
__when my young boyhood years were still passing,
I turned round to the left and then I durst,
__just like a child running toward his dam
__when sore afraid or in some care immersed,
to say to Virgil: “There is not a dram
__of blood left in me now that does not shake.
__I know the tokens of the flame. I am—”
But he was gone. The difference this would make!
__The loss of Virgil! Virgil, father dear,
__to whom I gave all for salvation’s sake.
Our antique mother’s losses, all, I fear,____the paradise lost to Eve
__would not assuage this dearth, or keep my eyes
__though washed in dew, from shedding tear on tear.
“Dante, though here is where our Virgil flies,____Beatrice speaks
__you mustn’t weep, you mustn’t weep, not now.
__A sword awaits; you’ll weep there where it lies.”
And like an admiral at stern or prow,
__who moves along the deck to check on them
__on other ships, to cheer them, that is how
I turned round at the sounding of my name,____ the only time his name appears
__which of necessity I’ve let you know.
__I saw the lady who to me first came
under a blessèd angel’s welcome’s veil
__direct her eyes at me across the creek,
__although the veil across her visage fell,
crowned by Minerva’s wreath; how long I’d seek, ____olive leaves, symbol of wisdom
__it would not let me see her very well.
__Her bearing regal, she began to speak
as someone who, in every stern address,
__keeps hottest words till end of the account.
__“Regard me well, for I am Beatrice.
So finally you’ve come to climb the mount!
__Did you not know that here is happiness?”
__I let my eyes fall to the limpid fount,
but, when I saw myself, looked toward the grass.
__My brow was sorely weighted and, shame-faced,
__I shrank from her, as children in distress,
will shrink from mother’s scolding, for the taste
__of love grown angry is a bitterness.
__She kept a silence. Angels in a haste:
In te speravi” by all of them was voiced.____ “In Thee I have trusted,” Psalm 31
__Then “pedos meos,” and then all was stilled. ____“my feet,” from the same psalm
__Just as the snow upon a living joist____tree not yet lumber
along the spine of Italy is congealed,____the Apennines
__compacted, piled, then again is moist,
__and then it melts and through itself is spilled
if but a wind of shadowless land should sigh, ____Africa, where the noon sun casts no shade
__a bit like wax below a candle’s fire:
__just so, then wracked with heaves and tears, was I
before I heard the singing—sweet suspire
__tuned to the music of eternal sky.
__And then I realized that this blessed choir
had pitied me, as if there came replies:
__“Why must you, lady, bring him to his knees?”
__Then what had tightened round my heart like ice
was breath and water, and my agonies
__came through my mouth as well as through my eyes.
__Still standing at the chariot’s left she sees
those charitable essences whose lay
__had sought to move her. Now she speaks anew:
__“You keep your vigil in eternal day, ____to the angels
when neither night nor sleep conceals from you
__a single step the world takes on its way.
__Therefore my answer must be tailored to
the case of him who weeps, so that I may
__give grief to him to match his guilt. It’s true
__that workings of the spheres will bring each seed
to its fixed end, according to the ways
__of constellations, but, too, gifts decreed____the Zodiac
__in largess of the overflowing grace,
which rains down from so high above our need
__our eyes could never reach that lofty place.
__This man was so endowed when life was new,
and all potential; even as a child
__he should have shone as proof of his virtue.
__But ground grows all the weedier and wild
when seeded badly, poorly tended to,
__the more the soil is rich. He was beguiled.
__My countenance gave sustenance to soul.
I turned my youthful eyes upon his own
__to guide him toward a righteous, proper goal.
__My first age then was nearly spent and done.
I stood at second’s door and in death stole.____at the age of twenty-five
__He turned from me and elsewhere he was won.
__When I had risen from the flesh to spirit,
had grown in beauty and in all virtue,
__to him I was less dear and less of merit.
__He passed along a way that was not true,
went chasing guise of good, and those who wear it
__all promise what the soul must come to rue.
__Nor did it help to pray that I’d inspire,
in dreams or by whatever was the cost,
__his swift return: this never sparked to fire!
__He fell so far, he was so tempest tossed,
I had no way of saving him less dire
__than showing him the people who were lost.____in Hell
__And so I visited the truly dead,
and brought the one who guided him to see.  ____Virgil
__My weeping and my prayers were thusly led.
__It would be violence to the Lord’s decree
if Lethe could be crossed and from that bed____river of forgetfulness of sin
__the waters could be drunk without a fee
__of penitence and tears so sorely shed.”
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Italian Original

Quando il settentrïon del primo cielo,
che né occaso mai seppe né orto
né d’altra nebbia che di colpa velo,

e che faceva lì ciascun accorto
di suo dover, come ’l più basso face
qual temon gira per venire a porto,

fermo s’affisse: la gente verace,
venuta prima tra ’l grifone ed esso,
al carro volse sé come a sua pace;

e un di loro, quasi da ciel messo,
“Veni, sponsa, de Libano” cantando
gridò tre volte, e tutti li altri appresso.

Quali i beati al novissimo bando
surgeran presti ognun di sua caverna,
la revestita voce alleluiando,

cotali in su la divina basterna
si levar cento, ad vocem tanti senis,
ministri e messaggier di vita etterna.

Tutti dicean: “Benedictus qui venis,”
e fior gittando e di sopra e dintorno,
“Manibus, oh, date lilïa plenis!”

Io vidi già nel cominciar del giorno
la parte orïental tutta rosata,
e l’altro ciel di bel sereno addorno;

e la faccia del sol nascere ombrata,
sì che per temperanza di vapori
l’occhio la sostenea lunga fïata:

così dentro una nuvola di fiori
che da le mani angeliche saliva
e ricadeva in giù dentro e di fori,

sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva
donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto
vestita di color di fiamma viva.

E lo spirito mio, che già cotanto
tempo era stato ch’a la sua presenza
non era di stupor, tremando, affranto,

sanza de li occhi aver più conoscenza,
per occulta virtù che da lei mosse,
d’antico amor sentì la gran potenza.

Tosto che ne la vista mi percosse
l’alta virtù che già m’avea trafitto
prima ch’io fuor di püerizia fosse,

volsimi a la sinistra col respitto
col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma
quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto,

per dicere a Virgilio: “Men che dramma
di sangue m’è rimaso che non tremi:
conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma.”

Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio a cui per mia salute die’mi;

né quantunque perdeo l’antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada,
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.

“Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada,
non pianger anco, non piangere ancora;
ché pianger ti conven per altra spada.”

Quasi ammiraglio che in poppa e in prora
viene a veder la gente che ministra
per li altri legni, e a ben far l’incora;

in su la sponda del carro sinistra,
quando mi volsi al suon del nome mio,
che di necessità qui si registra,

vidi la donna che pria m’appario
velata sotto l’angelica festa,
drizzar li occhi ver’ me di qua dal rio.

Tutto che ’l vel che le scendea di testa,
cerchiato de le fronde di Minerva,
non la lasciasse parer manifesta,

regalmente ne l’atto ancor proterva
continüò come colui che dice
’l più caldo parlar dietro reserva:

“Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.
Come degnasti d’accedere al monte?
non sapei tu che qui è l’uom felice?”

Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte;
ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a l’erba,
tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.

Così la madre al figlio par superba,
com’ ella parve a me; perché d’amaro
sente il sapor de la pietade acerba.

Ella si tacque; e li angeli cantaro
di sùbito ‘In te, Domine, speravi’;
ma oltre ‘pedes meos’ non passaro.

Sì come neve tra le vive travi
per lo dosso d’Italia si congela,
soffiata e stretta da li venti schiavi,

poi, liquefatta, in sé stessa trapela,
pur che la terra che perde ombra spiri,
sì che par foco fonder la candela;

così fui sanza lagrime e sospiri
anzi ’l cantar di quei che notan sempre
dietro a le note de li etterni giri;

ma poi che ’ntesi ne le dolci tempre
lor compatire a me, par che se detto
avesser: “Donna, perché sì lo stempre?”

lo gel che m’era intorno al cor ristretto,
spirito e acqua fessi, e con angoscia
de la bocca e de li occhi uscì del petto.

Ella, pur ferma in su la detta coscia
del carro stando, a le sustanze pie
volse le sue parole così poscia:

“Voi vigilate ne l’etterno die,
sì che notte né sonno a voi non fura
passo che faccia il secol per sue vie;

onde la mia risposta è con più cura
che m’intenda colui che di là piagne,
perché sia colpa e duol d’una misura.

Non pur per ovra de le rote magne,
che drizzan ciascun seme ad alcun fine
secondo che le stelle son compagne,

ma per larghezza di grazie divine,
che sì alti vapori hanno a lor piova,
che nostre viste là non van vicine,

questi fu tal ne la sua vita nova
virtüalmente, ch’ogne abito destro
fatto averebbe in lui mirabil prova.

Ma tanto più maligno e più silvestro
si fa ’l terren col mal seme e non cólto,
quant’ elli ha più di buon vigor terrestro.

Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto:
mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto.

Sì tosto come in su la soglia fui
di mia seconda etade e mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.

Quando di carne a spirto era salita,
e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m’era,
fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita;

e volse i passi suoi per via non vera,
imagini di ben seguendo false,
che nulla promession rendono intera.

Né l’impetrare ispirazion mi valse,
con le quali e in sogno e altrimenti
lo rivocai: sì poco a lui ne calse!

Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti
a la salute sua eran già corti,
fuor che mostrarli le perdute genti.

Per questo visitai l’uscio d’i morti,
e a colui che l’ha qua sù condotto,
li prieghi miei, piangendo, furon porti.

Alto fato di Dio sarebbe rotto,
se Letè si passasse e tal vivanda
fosse gustata sanza alcuno scotto

di pentimento che lagrime spanda.”

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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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9 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    This is such a magnificent translation with powerful words in English exhibiting a mastery of sensitivities and fabulous rhyming words. I am enamored with this translation and with your abilities.

    Reply
    • Stephen Binns

      Thank you, Roy. That means much to me, coming from one so greatly talented. I very much enjoy your stuff.

      Reply
  2. Scott J. Bloch

    Stephen combines that rare characteristic of a poet and scholar to render the unmistakable music of Dante. He is able to bring out an original form of poetry while keeping true to the masterpiece itself. I am most taken with how natural the terza rima comes out in this and other translated passages I’ve read of his. It is for me the version that best captures The Divine Comedy’s essence. I have read several other translations, some by other poets, like John Ciardi, who rhymed his. I have to say, I have found some of those translation in terza rima more wooden, at times awkward, and mostly bereft of the life and passion that I find in Stephen’s translations.

    Reply
  3. Monika Cooper

    Ah, poor Dante. Thank you for these beautiful verses.

    The snow simile is magical and a beautiful bit of lyric relief at a very stressful moment.

    Reply
  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is truly captivating. Some of my favorite lines: “Have seen the sun’s bright face wear vaporous clothes”; “I let my eyes fall to the limpid fount / But when I saw myself, looked toward the grass.”; “my agonies / Came through my mouth as well as through my eyes” (and, in the following two lines, pairing “chariot’s” and “charitable” was a delightful bit of verbal musicality.)

    Reply
  5. Nathan McKee

    Stephen, I wish I knew Italian so I could properly judge the translation, however, the English rendering into an alternating rhyme pattern was a pleasure to read – bene scripsisti interpretastique, O Stephano. This is such a vivid scene in this epic, what a delight to revisit it here under your rendering. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Stephen Binns

    For your kind words, thanks so much, Roy, Scott, Monika, Cynthia, and Carey. Et gratias tibi ago, Nathan.

    Reply
  7. Carmen de Perignat

    Stephen, thank you for directing me to this beautiful translation and the rendering in English of the terza rima. The words flow beautifully and it is a joy to read.

    Reply

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