The Lowest Heaven: Canto III of Paradise

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

The sun which with first love had warmed my breast ____Beatrice
__now showed, in her reproving, proving way,
__the lovely truth’s sweet face, all manifest.
I lifted more erect my head to say
__that of my errors I was then made free,
__and I began, but then ere I could weigh
a single word a vision came to me.
__It seized me and it tightly held my mind,
__so that I had forgotten my new plea.
As in a glass so polished that it shined,
__or in a still, clear pool which doesn’t go
__so deep that bottom of it we can’t find,
the outline of our features palely show,
__so weakly that our eyes could sooner seek
__and find a pearl upon a snow-white brow:
just so, I saw some faces make to speak.
__I erred then in reverse of the mistaking
__which kindled love for water in that Greek, ____Narcissus
and thinking those faint traces in that ring
__were just reflections, made a rather wild
__spin round to see the source. I found nothing.
I turned about again, confusion-riled,
__and took my line of sight from my guide’s lead.
__Her sacred eyes were sparkling as she smiled.
“You’re startled that I’m smiling at your deed?
__Your logic?” she then said. “I can well see
__you do not think your eyes and fact agreed,
but turn as usual back to bankruptcy.
__These are real souls who’ve come into your sight.
__They have been placed here for inconstancy
to solemn vows. Hear what they might recite.
__Believe them, for in them the truth’s afire,
__allowing no steps straying from pure light.”
Thus asked for this, I spoke up to inquire
__of one who seemed the most keen. I began
__like someone boggled by too much desire:
“O justly fashioned soul, who in the span
__of this eternal life, drinks from the well
__which, till tasted, is beyond knowledge of man:
I would be greatly pleased if you would tell
__your earthly name and station and your fate.”
__The soul had laughing eyes. She spoke a spell:
“Our charity would never close the gate
__against just wish; our love is as the Love ____God
__which wills us all to closely imitate.
I was a sister ere I came above, ____a nun
__and if you search your memory you’ll know,
__despite my brighter light, whom I speak of.
I am Piccarda, brought here from below, ____Piccarda Donati of Florence
__among these other souls, all of them blessed,
__to find my own blessed end in sphere most slow. ____the moon
Our wants, which have no wish ever to rest
__but in the pleasure of the Spirit’s leaven, ____Holy Spirit
__take joy within His order,” she professed.
“And this low-looking place that we’ve been given
__is ours because we broke, or partially,
__the vows that we once offered up to Heaven.”
And I: “There’s something that’s ineffably
__sublime, divine, that’s shining upon you,
__beyond the visage of my memory. ____Dante was related by marriage
But though I have a different point of view,
__just now, with help of words so very clear,
__my recollection comes and it is true.
But tell: Do you, so happy on this tier,
__have any wish to ever higher go
__to see more, or more dazzlingly appear?”
She smiled, as did the others in her tow.
__With even more glad tidings than before,
__she said, and with love’s fire seemed to glow:
“Love’s power, brother, quiets to the core.
__It soothes our wills, our wishes sate by grace.
__There is in us no thirst for something more.
Were we to wish for any higher place,
__then in that wish we would all fall away
__from will of One whom everyone obeys.
And if love is our whole, if you’ll survey
__love’s nature well, you’ll see that fracturing
__may have no room among us, and I say
the essence of this state of perfect being
__is putting all our will within His hands,
__whereby our wills are one, all quite agreeing.
And so the posts we keep in these bright lands,
__in every realm, please that realm completely,
__as they please Him whose will on high commands.
In His will is our peace. It is the sea
__to which all move, all now of one accord,
__all He or nature makes. It’s his decree.”
Then it was clear to me that every ward
__in Heaven is blessed, if grace does not avail
__all equally, all taken to the Lord.
But as at times when we have made a meal
__of just one dish, yet hunger will still grow
__for others, and give thanks for one, yet will
ask for some more: just so, I wished to know
__by word or sign, wherefore and by what lack
__she found herself unsuited for her vow.
“Perfection of her life, her every act,
__enskies a lady here,” she said, so gay. ____St. Clare of Assisi, founder of the Poor Clares
__“And some go veiled and habited in sack
that all their lives they might live night and day
__with spouse who has accepted vows they made ____Christ
__and offer for His pleasure, Him obey.
I fled the world to go, when still a maid,
__the way she walked, closed myself in her cove,
__pledged to my sisters till the debt was paid. ____till death
Then men came, men more wont to hate than love. ____led by her brother, Corso Donati
__They tore me off by force from that choir dear. ____to give her for an advantageous marriage
__What my life then became I need not prove.
This other one who shows her glow so clear,
__here to my right, who shines so, who is wed
__to every graciousness that lights this tier,
can see her own soul’s self in all I’ve said.
__She was a nun. From her, just as from me,
__the secrets of the veil were forcibly shed.
Against her will and quite improperly,
__she was brought back, but in that circumstance
__the veil upon her heart they could not free.
She is the ghost of the Empress Constance, ____empress of the Two Sicilies
__who by the son, the second Swabian king, ____Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI
__conceived and bore the third high eminence.” ____Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II
She finished and at once commenced to sing
__“Ave Maria,” and singing sank from sight
__like anchor into ocean, fast falling
from us. Eyes pursued as long as they might,
__then, losing her, I turned around to find
__the source, the fount, of my greater delight,
and wholly gave myself to my most kind,
__my sweetest, dearest Beatrice. But she
__upon my vision then so brightly shined
that I at first went blind. With hesitancy
I asked of her the things I wished to see.


Italian Original

Quel sol che pria d’amor mi scaldò ’l petto,
di bella verità m’avea scoverto,
provando e riprovando, il dolce aspetto;

e io, per confessar corretto e certo
me stesso, tanto quanto si convenne
leva’ il capo a proferer più erto;

ma visïone apparve che ritenne
a sé me tanto stretto, per vedersi,
che di mia confession non mi sovvenne.

Quali per vetri trasparenti e tersi,
o ver per acque nitide e tranquille,
non sì profonde che i fondi sien persi,

tornan d’i nostri visi le postille
debili sì, che perla in bianca fronte
non vien men forte a le nostre pupille;

tali vid’ io più facce a parlar pronte;
per ch’io dentro a l’error contrario corsi
a quel ch’accese amor tra l’omo e ’l fonte.

Sùbito sì com’ io di lor m’accorsi,
quelle stimando specchiati sembianti,
per veder di cui fosser, li occhi torsi;

e nulla vidi, e ritorsili avanti
dritti nel lume de la dolce guida,
che, sorridendo, ardea ne li occhi santi.

“Non ti maravigliar perch’ io sorrida,”
mi disse, “appresso il tuo püeril coto,
poi sopra ’l vero ancor lo piè non fida,

ma te rivolve, come suole, a vòto:
vere sustanze son ciò che tu vedi,
qui rilegate per manco di voto.

Però parla con esse e odi e credi;
ché la verace luce che le appaga
da sé non lascia lor torcer li piedi.”

E io a l’ombra che parea più vaga
di ragionar, drizza’mi, e cominciai,
quasi com’ uom cui troppa voglia smaga:

“O ben creato spirito, che a’ rai
di vita etterna la dolcezza senti
che, non gustata, non s’intende mai,

grazïoso mi fia se mi contenti
del nome tuo e de la vostra sorte.”
Ond’ ella, pronta e con occhi ridenti:

“La nostra carità non serra porte
a giusta voglia, se non come quella
che vuol simile a sé tutta sua corte.

I’ fui nel mondo vergine sorella;
e se la mente tua ben sé riguarda,
non mi ti celerà l’esser più bella,

ma riconoscerai ch’i’ son Piccarda,
che, posta qui con questi altri beati,
beata sono in la spera più tarda.

Li nostri affetti, che solo infiammati
son nel piacer de lo Spirito Santo,
letizian del suo ordine formati.

E questa sorte che par giù cotanto,
però n’è data, perché fuor negletti
li nostri voti, e vòti in alcun canto.”

Ond’ io a lei: “Ne’ mirabili aspetti
vostri risplende non so che divino
che vi trasmuta da’ primi concetti:

però non fui a rimembrar festino;
ma or m’aiuta ciò che tu mi dici,
sì che raffigurar m’è più latino.

Ma dimmi: voi che siete qui felici,
disiderate voi più alto loco
per più vedere e per più farvi amici?”

Con quelle altr’ ombre pria sorrise un poco;
da indi mi rispuose tanto lieta,
ch’arder parea d’amor nel primo foco:

“Frate, la nostra volontà quïeta
virtù di carità, che fa volerne
sol quel ch’avemo, e d’altro non ci asseta.

Se disïassimo esser più superne,
foran discordi li nostri disiri
dal voler di colui che qui ne cerne;

che vedrai non capere in questi giri,
s’essere in carità è qui necesse,
e se la sua natura ben rimiri.

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

sì che, come noi sem di soglia in soglia
per questo regno, a tutto il regno piace
com’ a lo re che ’n suo voler ne ’nvoglia.

E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace:
ell’ è quel mare al qual tutto si move
ciò ch’ella crïa o che natura face».

Chiaro mi fu allor come ogne dove
in cielo è paradiso, etsi la grazia
del sommo ben d’un modo non vi piove.

Ma sì com’ elli avvien, s’un cibo sazia
e d’un altro rimane ancor la gola,
che quel si chere e di quel si ringrazia,

così fec’ io con atto e con parola,
per apprender da lei qual fu la tela
onde non trasse infino a co la spuola.

“Perfetta vita e alto merto inciela
donna più sù,” mi disse, “a la cui norma
nel vostro mondo giù si veste e vela,

perché fino al morir si vegghi e dorma
con quello sposo ch’ogne voto accetta
che caritate a suo piacer conforma.

Dal mondo, per seguirla, giovinetta
fuggi’mi, e nel suo abito mi chiusi
e promisi la via de la sua setta.

Uomini poi, a mal più ch’a bene usi,
fuor mi rapiron de la dolce chiostra:
Iddio si sa qual poi mia vita fusi.

E quest’ altro splendor che ti si mostra
da la mia destra parte e che s’accende
di tutto il lume de la spera nostra,

ciò ch’io dico di me, di sé intende;
sorella fu, e così le fu tolta
di capo l’ombra de le sacre bende.

Ma poi che pur al mondo fu rivolta
contra suo grado e contra buona usanza,
non fu dal vel del cor già mai disciolta.

Quest’ è la luce de la gran Costanza
che del secondo vento di Soave
generò ’l terzo e l’ultima possanza.”

Così parlommi, e poi cominciò ‘Ave,
Maria’ cantando, e cantando vanio
come per acqua cupa cosa grave.

La vista mia, che tanto lei seguio
quanto possibil fu, poi che la perse,
volsesi al segno di maggior disio,

e a Beatrice tutta si converse;
ma quella folgorò nel mïo sguardo
sì che da prima il viso non sofferse;
e ciò mi fece a dimandar più tardo.



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. Roy Eugene Peterson

    This continuously amazing translation is a treasure of rhyme and meter.

  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with Roy. You write in this demanding terza rima form with such clarity that it is very easy to understand and pleasurable to read. I love the way you begin with the delightful phrase “that reproving, proving way”. Your allusion to Narcissus, for one, is wonderfully done; the strong imagery and musicality throughout kept me eagerly reading. I am awed at the talent it must take to translate, keeping, as I believe you have, to the mood that Dante intended.

  3. James Sale

    I particularly like this canto and have read it many times: this is a beautiful translation and I admire your facility in sustaining the terza rima, very difficult to do. Well done.

  4. Stephen Binns

    Thank you so much, Roy, Cynthia, and James, for your kind words and your close reading. I greatly admire your own beautiful work.

    In my submissions, I’ve been loosely following the love story of Dante and Beatrice. To vary the tone, I might next submit cantos 32 and 33 of Inferno (which in tandem tell perhaps the most harrowing tale in the book) before returning to things paradisical.

  5. Russell

    To me, this translation manages to maintain the rhythmic and lyrical qualities of Dante’s verse while enhancing its poetic and philosophical depth. This is an exceptional and engaging rendition.

  6. Harley Price

    Binn’s translation is a monumental accomplishment. In my generally hardening prejudice that there has been nothing of much value written by scholars of medieval literature or thought since about 1970, I have long regarded the translation of Dorothy Sayers as impossible to improve upon. Binn’s translation surpasses it, in its musicality, its evocation of Dante’s (under-appreciated) talent for paradox, irony, and humor, its alchemical conjunction of archaism with modern idiom, and its line-by-line fidelity to Dante’s meaning.

  7. Monika Cooper

    So beautiful. I was struck by the aquatic imagery: the soul of Piccarda first looks like a pearl, a reflection in water, then at the end sinks from sight like an anchor. I find an endless interest in the texture of this translation, in great part, as Harley Price mentions above, because of its harmonious incorporation of modern idiom: words like “boggled” are both surprising and pleasing to find in a Dante canto.

    I am so glad the translator left “In his will is our peace” just the way we’re used it, however. Perfect should never be messed with.

    I will only add that the Narcissus reference that appears in this Canto has always intrigued me. There is such a reference in Inferno too, I forget just where, and then in Paradiso, of course, there’s the shockingly beautiful portrait of Rachel admiring her own lovely eyes all day: Narcissus redeemed. It’s a threefold parallel I’ve long wanted to study. And I want to reiterate how much I’m looking forward to having this translation between covers, as in justice it must exist someday! The event will be worthy of a Dante-in-translation reading party.

    • Monika Cooper

      Sorry, the Rachel vision is in Purgatorio. But she herself, of course, is high in Paradise.

  8. Stephen Binns

    Hearty thanks for your kind words to the talented poets Russell, C. B., and Monika, and to that least prosaical of prose writers Harley Price.

    Great memory, Monika! Narcissus comes up in, I think, Canto 30 of “Inferno.” And, to use your nice phrase, scholars have found “Narcissus redeemed” by Dante himself in Canto 30 of “Purgatory,” when Beatrice makes her sudden appearance. My translation:

    “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.

    Scholar Kevin Brownlee says that Narcissus is “recalled and corrected” here.


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