Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 17

As before, Dante lacks the confidence to ask more questions, but Beatrice urges him to speak because he needs the practice, and she reminds him that they already know what is in his mind. Dante tells Cacciaguida that all along his journey he has heard dark prophecies about himself. And while these have taught him what he might expect in the future, he still wants to know more so that  he will be better prepared. Cacciaguida, who can see Dante’s future in the mind of God, tells him plainly that he will be exiled from Florence and that he will lose all that is dear to him. It will be difficult for him to accept the hospitality of others’ homes and the foolish company he will be forced to keep. Yet, he reassures Dante, that he will be very well-treated by a noble family in Verona. In the end, Cacciaguida advises Dante not to be envious of his neighbors, because they will get what they deserve. Rather, he tells him to speak the truth. While it might be bitter for some to hear, it will be instructive for so many more. He also tells Dante that the reason he has met only notable souls on his journey is because his readers will pay more attention to his poem than if he wrote about people who are not well known.

            Standing there with that holy radiance of my ancestor who moved closer to me now, I felt myself to be like young Phaeton who went to his mother Clymene to make certain his father was a god – a story which still warns fathers about what they give their sons. Then Beatrice spoke to me: “This is the time to put into words the desire that flames up within your heart. Speak with confidence; not that we don’t already know what you wish to know, but that you might continue to learn to express what is deepest within you. In such a way your inner thirst will be quenched.”

            And so I began: “O you who are my precious root, raised so high within this divine realm that you look within that Eternal Point where time ends, and you see contingent things there before they take shape in reality. While I traveled with Virgil down into the kingdom of the dead and then climbed with him the mountain that heals, dark things were told to me about my future and I feel well-fortified against the winds of Fortune. But I still desire to know what she has in store for me so I might understand what to expect when it finally comes.” This is what I said to my loving ancestor who had already spoken to me, and having done so I also fulfilled Beatrice’s wish.

            And not in the obscure words of the ancient oracles, but in plain speech – and smiling – he responded lovingly: “The realm of contingent things includes all that is material. And  while material things do not last, they are still fully seen in the Mind of God. But because God sees them that does not mean that He makes them happen, just as a boat’s movement isn’t determined by the eye that sees it moving. Nevertheless, as a lovely harmony comes to our ears, so in that Mind I envision things the future has in store for you. Just as the innocent Hippolytus was forced to flee Athens by his stepmother’s evil intentions, so you will be forced to leave Florence. It has been planned and will soon be carried out by those in Rome who buy and sell Christ every day! And as always happens, the innocent party will be blamed. But as vengeance belongs to God, you can trust that the truth will be made manifest in the end.

            “You will have to leave behind those whom you love dearly, and this is the first sharp arrow your exile shall strike you with. After that you will taste how bitter the bread is at tables not your own, and you will know the grim task of trudging up and down the stairs of other people’s homes. But what will press the most on you during these times will be the evil and foolish company you will have to keep. Ungrateful, mad, and vicious, they will turn against you; but in the end, it will be their faces that blush with shame, not yours. Their own deeds will manifest what savages they are, and it will be to your credit that you stand apart from them.

            “Your first respite will come through the courteous hospitality of that noble Lombard lord whose shield bears the sacred eagle upon a golden ladder. He will hold you in high esteem and grant you many favors before you even ask. He is one who, when he was born, was highly endowed with the qualities of this star, and he will be renowned for his great deeds. Being still quite young, his fame in the world has not yet come to the fore. But before Pope Clement abandons the Emperor Henry, this young man will show what he is made of by his hard work and disdain for wealth. His generosity will be so well known that even his enemies will have to admit his worthiness. So, cultivate his friendship with you and you will see good things. Because of him the destinies of many rich and poor will be reversed. Write down all of what I have told you in your mind, but do not reveal it.” And he told me even more things concerning this noble lord that might seem incredible, but they will come true.

            “And now,” he continued, “you have heard my interpretation of the things you were told on your journey, and you have an idea of what to prepare yourself for. But let me also say this: do not be envious of your neighbors, because you have a destiny that will endure long after their crimes are forgotten.”

            When he had finished weaving the threads of my future into a clear image, but still longing for some reassurance from this honorable soul, I said: “My dear father, I understand the blows of Fortune that will come my way – hitting hardest those who are least prepared. This foresight arms me against the arrows of fate, and if it must be that I be exiled from Florence, at least my poem will make a place for me elsewhere. All along my journey – through the underworld, up the mountain from whose summit Beatrice raised me, and through these heavenly spheres – I have learned things that, if I were to repeat them, would taste bitter in many mouths. On the other hand, if I do not tell the truth I fear that my name will be forgotten among those who might think of these as the olden times.”

            Hearing this, that precious glowing soul began to shine even brighter, as though he were a golden mirror reflecting the sun. And he replied: “The man with a conscience shamed and dark with his own deeds or those of another might well feel the sting of your words. But do not hide the truth, tell everything you have seen and let those evil men bear the brunt. In the end, your words will serve to instruct many, though they might taste bitter at first. What you write will be like the wind – blowing hardest against the highest peaks – and this will bring you honor. It was for this reason that all through your travels you’ve only encountered notable souls, because theirs are the kinds of stories most people will pay attention to.”