Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 30

It is dawn, and as Dante looks lovingly at Beatrice, he tells his reader that she is now so beautiful that everything he’s said about her before is merely a trifle. Portraying himself as utterly defeated by his theme, he admits that he could always rely on his poems to convey her wondrous beauty. But now he must leave that task to someone more gifted as he brings his grand poem to a conclusion. Beatrice tells him that they have passed from the Primum Mobile to the Empyrean – from the very top of the Cosmos into the realm of Heaven proper. She tells Dante that they are now in a place of pure light where, in a few moments, he will be privileged to see the angels and the saints – and the latter with their bodies as they will be seen at the Last Day. Immediately, Dante is enveloped by a flash of light that blinds him momentarily. Beatrice tells him this is Heaven’s way of welcoming him. Quickly realizing that his senses are heightened as never before, Dante sees before him a river of pure light with great sparks flying out of it and into the flowers on the river’s banks – and from the flowers back into the river. His guide also tells him that what he sees are only shadowy semblances of what they really are, and she urges him to put his face directly into the river of light. As soon as he does so, the river turns into a circular lake and, for the first time, Dante sees all the saints and angels within a great rose-like amphitheater whose breadth and height are impossible to measure, though he can see it all perfectly. Quietly, Beatrice escorts Dante to the center of this great Rose and tells him to take in all the grandeur of Heaven and its holy citizens. She brings the canto a close by pointing out a throne reserved for the Emperor Henry VII, and she rebukes Pope Clement V for his greedy hypocrisy.

            Perhaps six thousand miles away from us it is noontime and the shadow of our world is already inclining toward a level bed. Far above us in the high heavens a change begins, and here and there stars begin to fade as Dawn, the sun’s bright handmaid, advances and heaven’s brightest lights dim away from sight. In the same way the grand Triumph of rejoicing angels circling round the dazzling Point that overcame me – which seems contained by what it actually contains – Itself faded slowly from my sight, and seeing nothing else, I happily fixed my eyes on Beatrice once more.

            If it were possible to sum up everything I have said about her up to this point and put it into a hymn of praise, it would be a trifling thing. What I now saw there in her face escapes mortal telling, and I believe that only God Who created her can fully enjoy what He made! At this point I have to admit that I am utterly defeated: more than any other tragic or comic poet ever was, I am done in by my theme. Just as sunlight will blind feeble eyes, even so the faintest memory of her gracious smile leaves me senseless. From the first time I saw her in life until this moment, I could always rely on my poems to give voice to my praise. But her beauty has surpassed my poetry, and though I have done the best any artist might do, I can no longer capture her in words. Alas, I must now leave the sound of her glorious beauty to a trumpet greater than mine as I prepare to bring this grand theme to a close.

            Then, with the voice and bearing of a guide whose task is completed, she said: “We have left the greatest of the spheres and have arrived at the heaven of pure light – light of the intellect, filled with the love of what is truly good, filled with an ecstasy that surpasses all joy. In this place you will see both armies of Paradise – Angels and Saints – the latter with their bodies as you will see them on the Last Day.”

            At that instant, as a flash of lightning will so blind the eyes that even the clearest objects will fade for a moment, just so I was suddenly enveloped in such a glorious effulgence of living light that all I could see was light. And I heard Beatrice say: “This is how the Love that rules this heaven greets all who enter here. In this way you are the candle made ready for Its flame.”

            Immediately upon hearing these words, I became aware that all my senses had become heightened far beyond their mortal powers. I now had such sight that I could gaze with ease upon the most brilliant of lights. And indeed, what I now beheld was a river of blazing light shooting up great magnificent sparks between two banks profuse with the gorgeous colors of Spring. Those marvelous living sparks flew up out of that river and came to rest on the flowers edging its bank, looking like great rubies set in precious gold. But only for a moment, because they streamed back into the river causing other great sparks to flare out and settle among the flowers.

            “Once again I see your burning desire to ask questions,” Beatrice said softly. “And the more I see that the more it pleases me. But before this great thirst of yours can be satisfied you must first drink from the waters here. This river, the brilliant gems you see flying in and out of it, and the laughter among these happy flowers – all of them are shadowy prefaces of their truth. They are not lacking anything in themselves; rather, it is your sight that is still not strong enough to take in such sublime things.”

            No infant, having overslept and missed its accustomed feeding, could seek its mother’s milk more eagerly than I as I bent down and put my face into those waters to make my eyes more polished mirrors, the better to take in their pure light. And no sooner had I done this than that wondrous straight-flowing river changed into a round lake. Behold! As at a masquerade the revelers take off their masks to reveal the true selves they have been hiding, so there before my eyes those sparks and the flowers changed into an ever greater celebration: there in front of me I saw, as they truly are, the two courts of Heaven.

            O splendor of God through which I witnessed the triumph of that one true kingdom, grant me the grace and the power to put into words what I now saw! There is a light in Heaven whose resplendence makes The Creator visible to those who reside there and whose sole pleasure is in looking upon Him forever. This light spreads out into a circle so vast that, were it a belt for the sun, it would be too loose. The size of this immense circle of light originates in a single ray of divine light that shines down upon the outermost sphere, the Primum Mobile, and  gives it its movement and its power. Just as a verdant hillside is mirrored in a lake, enjoying the richness of its beauty reflected back, just so I saw there, reflected in that great light, tier upon tier of countless souls enjoying their eternal reward. But…if such splendor was contained within the first tier alone, just imagine the vastness of this heavenly Rose to its outer petals!

            And yet, such immense breadth and height did not confound my sight in the least. I was able to see all of Heaven’s hosts both in number and the fullness of their joy, because where God governs directly, the laws of Nature are unnecessary. Though I longed to speak, Beatrice led me silently into the golden center of that eternal Rose, whose tiers of fragrant petals opened in praise to that Sun of everlasting spring. “Behold,” she said, “how vast is the white-robed council of Saints. Look upon the limitless expanse of our city. It is nearly full and only a few seats remain. See that great seat with the crown fixed above it? It is destined for the Emperor Henry VII who will sit there before you receive the final summons to join this eternal wedding feast. He will strive to set Italy on the path of righteousness before she is ready to accept it. Italy you are bewitched! Like a child dying of hunger you have a nurse, but you drive her away. Your blind greed is starving you to death. When Henry comes Pope Clement V will act as though he is in agreement but do the opposite in secret. Nevertheless, God will not allow him to occupy that holy office for long. He will be crammed into the hole where Simon Magus pays for his crimes, and he will shove Boniface VIII further down!”