Wings of Desire: Canto I of Paradise

by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
translated by Stephen Binns
God’s glory, which moves all, sends beams to bless
__each thing in space, reflected just as bright
__as that thing’s worth is deemed, here more, there less.
Now to that Heaven that takes most His light____the Empyrean
__I went, amid what one can’t comprehend
__and can’t describe, who comes down from that height.
For as the mind is striving toward the end,
__it opens to such depths of the sublime
__that memory cannot that far extend.
But still, whatever’s left to me of time,
__the treasures that I might have in my trove
__shall now become material for my rhyme.
Apollo, for this last work, you above:
__fill me as such a vessel of your store
__as worthy of a laurel I might prove.
One peak of Mount Parnassus twice before____the peak of the Muses, for Inferno and Purgatory
__has served my need and now I need its twin ____the peak of Apollo
__to enter the arena just once more.
Instill my breast, I ask you, there breathe in
__the strains Marsyas heard in your victory,____satyr who challenged Apollo to a singing contest 
__when you were severing body from his skin. ____punishment for his presumptuousness
Virtue divine, I pray, entrust to me
__the power with which I might faintly show
__mere shadows of the light of memory,
and you’ll see me in green groves, where I go
__to pluck myself the leaves that I require
__to honor my high theme from here below.
So seldom are they gathered, you of lyre,
__to honor poet or Caesar true and right:
__a deficit of our earthly desire.
May Peneus’s frond bring much delight____father of Apollo’s love, Daphne
__to Delphic deity, may it inspire
__this climb again to Empyrean height.
A spark is predecessor to a fire,
__and so a nobler voice might seek for you
__and find that Cyrrha hoists him even higher.____Apollo’s peak of Parnassus
The world’s lamp will come into our view____the sun
__from different points, but at that point we find
__four circles with three crosses; it soars through____celestial equator, ecliptic, and  equinoctial colure
a better, holier course and it will bind____all cross the horizon at the same spot
__to better stars, shape wax so to appear____at the spring equinox, in Aries
__much closer to its nature, its own kind.
That glad conjoining made it evening here____Italy
__and morning there; the south was all alight____Purgatory, thought to be in the southern hemisphere
__while blackness loomed upon our hemisphere,
when she turned to her left so that she might_
__lift eyes up to the light. No eagle eye
__stared at its shining with so fixed a sight.
And as a beam that’s hurling from the sky
__inspires one’s return, as we might find
__a pilgrim pining for home, just so here: by
her action, like a ray into my mind,
__I too brought eyes up skyward then. I strove
__for such long time this might have left me blind.
But much is given to our sense above
__in that great garden made for man’s own lot____Garden of Eden, imagined as the summit of Purgatory
__that is not here for us to partake of.
I had to turn away soon, and yet not
__so soon a spark and blaze I could not see,
__like iron when it pours out to be wrought.
Then suddenly, as it then seemed to me,
__the day became two days, as if He who steers
__the sun had added one to sky’s glory.
And Beatrice stared at eternal spheres,
__entranced, immobile, then I let sight stray
__to set my eyes on those of my dear seer’s.
And as I stared, I felt inside the way
__Glaucus must’ve, he of herb that’s made him since
__a god among the others of sea’s sway.____fisherman transformed into a sea god by the herb
To speak of the transhuman to human sense: __Dante coined the word trasumanar
__I can’t in words, but this example might
__suffice until God grants His radiance.
And whether I was nothing in your sight____addressed to God
__but part you fashioned last, within your eyes, ____his soul
__you only know, who raised me to your light.
When spheres all spinning—which you eternalize
__through need of you—did my attention take,
__with diverse melodies you harmonize,
the glaring of the sunlight seemed to make
__the sun so vast no river and no rain
__had ever spread to such a wide round lake.
That brilliance and that sweet new-heard refrain
__had fired longing for their how and why
__as I’d not felt. She moved then to explain,
who knew my every thought as well as I,
__and oped her lips to ease my mind’s abuse.
__I asked no question but she gave reply.
She thus began: “You make yourself obtuse
__with wrong imaginings which now must bar
__what you would see if you could turn eyes loose.
You’re not on earth, though you still think you are,
__and lightning streaking, earthbound, never broke
__to fly as swiftly as your sinking star.” ____his return, in thought, to earthly things
I grasped her smiling words and I awoke
__from first confusion, but the knotted ties
__of still another came, and so I spoke:
“My mind, already reeling from surprise,
__which you’ve explained with your good wonted care,
__now reels anew. How can I ever rise—
my body—through substance lighter than air?”
__She sighed in pity as a mother would
__with delirious child. “The elements everywhere,
of everything,” she said, “however flawed,
__conform to order. It is this command
__that gives the universe the shape of God.
And we the highest creatures show the hand
__of His eternal worth, which has no flaws,
__to which the forms conduce, his own demand.
All beings within order, by the laws
__of their own nature, must abide, they know,
__in their own place beneath their Primal Cause.
So every nature moves upon the flow
__of that wide sea of being, comes then soon
__toward home; instinct only shows the way to go.
That instinct moves the fire round the moon.
__It is the mover of the human heart.
__It pulls together all that’s merely strewn.
Not only animals, but, too, that part
__with love and intellect instinct will steer____mankind
__toward our own mark, as bow will shoot a dart.
The providence which makes us yearn down there
__will satiate forever Heaven’s arc,
__where whirls around forever fleetest sphere.____ the Primum Mobile
Up to it then, as I’ve said, we embark,
__the two of us, shot by that bow and string,
__and every dart will find a golden mark.
It’s true that very often the form of a thing
__does not the art’s intention quite obey:
__the form sometimes is deaf to harkening.
Just so, the being often veers away
__from its true path; however art inspire,
__it still wields will and power in its sway.
Precisely as we see the thunder’s fire
__drop from a cloud, an impulse at its heart
__is twisted downward by its own desire.
You should not, as I view it, give a start
__at rising, no more than at a river’s flow
__from some high place down to some lowest part.
If you had settled, come to rest below,
__free as you are of every human band,
__that would indeed have been as marvelous show
as stock-still fire down in your own land.”
Her eyes rose to what she’d have me understand.
Italian Original
La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l’universo penetra, e risplende
in una parte più e meno altrove.
Nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende
fu’ io, e vidi cose che ridire
né sa né può chi di là sù discende;
perché appressando sé al suo disire,
nostro intelletto si profonda tanto,
che dietro la memoria non può ire.
Veramente quant’ io del regno santo
ne la mia mente potei far tesoro,
sarà ora materia del mio canto.
O buono Appollo, a l’ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso,
come dimandi a dar l’amato alloro.
Infino a qui l’un giogo di Parnaso
assai mi fu; ma or con amendue
m’è uopo intrar ne l’aringo rimaso.
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsïa traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.
O divina virtù, se mi ti presti
tanto che l’ombra del beato regno
segnata nel mio capo io manifesti,
vedra’mi al piè del tuo diletto legno
venire, e coronarmi de le foglie
che la materia e tu mi farai degno.
Sì rade volte, padre, se ne coglie
per trïunfare o cesare o poeta,
colpa e vergogna de l’umane voglie,
che parturir letizia in su la lieta
delfica deïtà dovria la fronda
peneia, quando alcun di sé asseta.
Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda:
forse di retro a me con miglior voci
si pregherà perché Cirra risponda.
Surge ai mortali per diverse foci
la lucerna del mondo; ma da quella
che quattro cerchi giugne con tre croci,
con miglior corso e con migliore stella
esce congiunta, e la mondana cera
più a suo modo tempera e suggella.
Fatto avea di là mane e di qua sera
tal foce, e quasi tutto era là bianco
quello emisperio, e l’altra parte nera,
quando Beatrice in sul sinistro fianco
vidi rivolta e riguardar nel sole:
aquila sì non li s’affisse unquanco.
E sì come secondo raggio suole
uscir del primo e risalire in suso,
pur come pelegrin che tornar vuole,
così de l’atto suo, per li occhi infuso
ne l’imagine mia, il mio si fece,
e fissi li occhi al sole oltre nostr’ uso.
Molto è licito là, che qui non lece
a le nostre virtù, mercé del loco
fatto per proprio de l’umana spece.
Io nol soffersi molto, né sì poco,
ch’io nol vedessi sfavillar dintorno,
com’ ferro che bogliente esce del foco;
e di sùbito parve giorno a giorno
essere aggiunto, come quei che puote
avesse il ciel d’un altro sole addorno.
Beatrice tutta ne l’etterne rote
fissa con li occhi stava; e io in lei
le luci fissi, di là sù rimote.
Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei,
qual si fé Glauco nel gustar de l’erba
che ’l fé consorto in mar de li altri dèi.
Trasumanar significar per verba
non si poria; però l’essemplo basti
a cui esperïenza grazia serba.
S’i’ era sol di me quel che creasti
novellamente, amor che ’l ciel governi,
 tu ’l sai, che col tuo lume mi levasti.
Quando la rota che tu sempiterni
desiderato, a sé mi fece atteso
con l’armonia che temperi e discerni,
parvemi tanto allor del cielo acceso
de la fiamma del sol, che pioggia o fiume
lago non fece alcun tanto disteso.
La novità del suono e ’l grande lume
di lor cagion m’accesero un disio
mai non sentito di cotanto acume.
Ond’ ella, che vedea me sì com’ io,
a quïetarmi l’animo commosso,
pria ch’io a dimandar, la bocca aprio,
e cominciò: “Tu stesso ti fai grosso
col falso imaginar, sì che non vedi
ciò che vedresti se l’avessi scosso.
Tu non se’ in terra, sì come tu credi;
ma folgore, fuggendo il proprio sito,
non corse come tu ch’ad esso riedi.”
S’io fui del primo dubbio disvestito
per le sorrise parolette brevi,
dentro ad un nuovo più fu’ inretito,
e dissi: “Già contento requïevi
di grande ammirazion; ma ora ammiro
com’ io trascenda questi corpi levi.”
Ond’ ella, appresso d’un pïo sospiro,
li occhi drizzò ver’ me con quel sembiante
che madre fa sovra figlio deliro,
e cominciò: “Le cose tutte quante
hanno ordine tra loro, e questo è forma
che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante.
Qui veggion l’alte creature l’orma
de l’etterno valore, il qual è fine
al quale è fatta la toccata norma.
Ne l’ordine ch’io dico sono accline
tutte nature, per diverse sorti,
più al principio loro e men vicine;
onde si muovono a diversi porti
per lo gran mar de l’essere, e ciascuna
con istinto a lei dato che la porti.
Questi ne porta il foco inver’ la luna;
questi ne’ cor mortali è permotore;
questi la terra in sé stringe e aduna;
né pur le creature che son fore
d’intelligenza quest’ arco saetta
ma quelle c’hanno intelletto e amore.
La provedenza, che cotanto assetta,
del suo lume fa ’l ciel sempre quïeto
nel qual si volge quel c’ha maggior fretta;
e ora lì, come a sito decreto,
cen porta la virtù di quella corda
che ciò che scocca drizza in segno lieto.
Vero è che, come forma non s’accorda
molte fïate a l’intenzion de l’arte,
perch’ a risponder la materia è sorda,
così da questo corso si diparte
talor la creatura, c’ha podere
di piegar, così pinta, in altra parte;
e sì come veder si può cadere
foco di nube, sì l’impeto primo
l’atterra torto da falso piacere.
Non dei più ammirar, se bene stimo,
lo tuo salir, se non come d’un rivo
se d’alto monte scende giuso ad imo.
Maraviglia sarebbe in te se, privo
d’impedimento, giù ti fossi assiso,
com’ a terra quïete in foco vivo.”
Quinci rivolse inver’ lo cielo il viso.
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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10 Responses

  1. Allegra Silberstein

    What a joy to read this translation with all your helpful notes for greater understanding. I wish I had a copy. Thanks so much…Allegra

  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    You have continued your tasteful and well-wrought translations with another masterpiece from Dante. Surely there is considerable effort involved in such a work of classic poetry searching for the matching words while staying close in proximity to the original.

  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    Your opening lines had me in their grip — your description of God’s glory as light beaming on each thing at its appropriate level, as well as your description of the difficulties of the writer fulfilling his divine, seemingly impossible task of trying to embody the ineffable. “… it is this command / That gives the universe the shape of God.” is one of my very favorite statements. Also, describing lightning as “thunder’s fire” dropping from a cloud is marvelous.

  4. J. David Graham

    I’ve always found terza rima difficult, but you’ve handled it smoothly. Well done.

  5. Monika Cooper

    You’ve made Dante new; so much of this canto I was reading as if I’d never read it before. There were landmarks though, appearing out of the strange sea.

    “Transhuman” was a chilling word to come across. That’s because people are now trying to achieve the transhuman by means opposed to grace. I’m amazed at Dante’s getting there first (before them anyway) and claiming it for Christ.

    Hopkins said “doff darkness, homing nature knows the rest.” Bet he was thinking of this canto. Human nature is homing nature but needs grace to reach its goal. Lovely bracing voice of Beatrice in your translation.

  6. Stephen Binns

    Thanks so much, all, for your very close reading and your very kind words.

    Cynthia, I’m so happy that you mentioned “that gives the universe the shape of God”! I’m now nearing completion of the entire “Divine Comedy,” and that may have been the most satisfying line to translate (“forma / che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante.”).

    I think it was John Ciardi who said that Italian is a rhyme-rich language and English a rhyme-poor language. Fortunately, though, ours is a synonym-rich language.

    • Monika Cooper

      I have noticed the same about our synonym-wealth compensating for our rhyme-poverty. It is super uncanny to find someone else saying that!

  7. Carmen de Perignat

    I continue to read this beautiful translation and I’m in awe of the complexity of fitting the terza rima into English while following closely Dante’s verse. Masterful. Looking forward to its publication.


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