Verse > Harvard Classics > Dante Alighieri > The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).  The Divine Comedy.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Canto XVII
ARGUMENT.—The Poet issues from that thick vapour; and soon after his fancy represents to him in lively portraiture some noted examples of anger. This imagination is dissipated by the appearance of an angel, who marshals them onward to the fourth cornice, on which the sin of gloominess or indifference is purged; and here Virgil shows him that this vice proceeds from a defect of love, and that all love can be only of two sorts, either natural, or of the soul; of which sorts the former is always right, but the latter may err either in respect of object or of degree.
CALL to remembrance, reader, if thou e’er
Hast on an Alpine height been ta’en by cloud,
Through which thou saw’st no better than the mole
Doth through opacous membrane; then, whene’er
The watery vapours dense began to melt        5
Into thin air, how faintly the sun’s sphere
Seem’d wading through them: so thy nimble thought
May image, how at first I rebeheld
The sun, that bedward now his couch o’erhung.
  Thus, with my leader’s feet still equaling pace,        10
From forth that could I came, when now expired
The parting beams from off the nether shores.
  O quick and forgetive power! that sometimes dost
So rob us of ourselves, we take no mark
Though round about us thousand trumpets clang;        15
What moves thee, if the senses stir not? Light
Moves thee from Heaven, spontaneous, self-inform’d;
Or, likelier, gliding down with swift illapse
By will divine. Portray’d before me came
The traces of her dire impiety,        20
Whose form was changed into the bird, that most
Delights itself in song: 1 and here my mind
Was inwardly so wrapt, it gave no place
To aught that ask’d admittance from without.
Next shower’d into my fantasy a shape        25
As of one crucified, whose visage spake
Fell rancour, malice deep, wherein he died;
And round him Ahasuerus the great king;
Esther his bride; and Mordecai the just,
Blameless in word and deed. As of itself        30
That unsubstantial coinage of the brain
Burst, like a bubble, when the water fails
That fed it; in my vision straight uprose
A damsel 2 weeping loud, and cried, “O queen!
O mother! wherefore has intemperate ire        35
Driven thee to loathe thy being? Not to lose
Lavinia, desperate thou hast slain thyself.
Now hast thou lost me. I am she, whose tears
Mourn, ere I fall, a mother’s timeless end.”
  E’en as a sleep breaks off, if suddenly        40
New radiance strikes upon the closed lids,
The broken slumber quivering ere it dies;
Thus, from before me, sunk that imagery,
Vanishing, soon as on my face there struck
The light, outshining far our earthly beam.        45
As round I turn’d me to survey what place
I had arrived at, “Here ye mount”: exclaim’d
A voice, that other purpose left me none
Save will so eager to behold who spake,
I could not chuse but gaze. As ’fore the sun,        50
That weighs our vision down, and veils his form
In light transcendent, thus my virtue fail’d
Unequal. “This is Spirit from above,
Who marshals us our upward way, unsought;
And in his own light shrouds him. As a man        55
Doth for himself, so now is done for us.
For whoso waits imploring, yet sees need
Of his prompt aidance, sets himself prepared
For blunt denial, ere the suit be made.
Refuse we not to lend a ready foot        60
At such inviting: haste we to ascend,
Before it darken: for we may not then,
Till morn again return.” So spake my guide;
And to one ladder both address’d our steps;
And the first stair approaching, I perceived        65
Near me as ’t were the waving of a wing,
That fann’d my face, and whisper’d: “Blessed they,
The peace-makers: they know not evil wrath.”
  Now to such height above our heads were raised
The last beams, follow’d close by hooded night,        70
That many a star on all sides through the gloom
Shone out. “Why partest from me, O my strength?”
So with myself I communed; for I felt
My o’ertoil’d sinews slacken. We had reach’d
The summit, and were fix’d like to a bark        75
Arrived at land. And waiting a short space,
If aught should meet mine ear in that new round,
Then to my guide I turn’d, and said: “Loved sire!
Declare what guilt is on this circle purged.
If our feet rest, no need thy speech should pause.”        80
  He thus to me: “The love of good, whate’er
Wanted of just proportion, here fulfils.
Here plies afresh the oar, that loiter’d ill.
But that thou mayst yet clearlier understand,
Give ear unto my words; and thou shalt cull        85
Some fruit may please thee well, from this delay.
  “Creator, nor created being, e’er,
My son,” he thus began, “was without love,
Or natural, or the free spirit’s growth,
Thou hast not that to learn. The natural still        90
Is without error: but the other swerves,
If on ill object bent, or through excess
Of vigour, or defect. While e’er it seeks
The primal blessings, 3 or with measure due
The inferior, 4 no delight, that flows from it,        95
Partakes of ill. But let it warp to evil,
Or with more ardour than behoves, or less,
Pursue the good; the thing created then
Works ’gainst its Maker. Hence thou must infer
That love is germin of each virtue in ye,        100
And of each act no less, that merits pain.
Now 5 since it may not be, but love intend
The welfare mainly of the thing it loves,
All from self-hatred are secure; and since
No being can be thought to exist apart,        105
And independent of the first, a bar
Of equal force restrains from hating that.
  “Grant the distinction just; and it remains
The evil must be another’s, which is loved.
Three ways such love is gender’d in your clay.        110
There is 6 who hopes (his neighbour’s worth deprest)
Pre-eminence himself; and covets hence,
For his own greatness, that another fall.
There is 7 who so much fears the loss of power,
Fame, favour, glory, (should his fellow mount        115
Above him), and so sickens at the thought,
He loves their opposite: and there is he, 8
Whom wrong or insult seems to gall and shame,
That he doth thirst for vengeance; and such needs
Must dote on other’s evil. Here beneath,        120
This threefold love is mourn’d. Of the other sort
Be now instructed; that which follows good,
But with disorder’d and irregular course.
  “All indistinctly apprehend a bliss,
On which the soul may rest; the hearts of all        125
Yearn after it; and to that wished bourn
All therefore strive to tend. If ye behold,
Or seek it, with a love remiss and lax;
This cornice, after just repenting, lays
Its penal torment on ye. Other good        130
There is, where man finds not his happiness:
It is not true fruition; not that blest
Essence, of every good the branch and root.
The love too lavishly bestow’d on this,
Along three circles over us, is mourn’d.        135
Account of that division tripartite
Expect not, fitter for thine own research.”
Note 1. I cannot think, with Vellutello, that the swallow is here meant. Dante probably alludes to the story of Philomela, as it is found in Homer’s “Odyssey,” b. xix. 518. Philomela intended to slay the son of her husband’s brother Amphion, incited to it by the envy of his wife, who had six children, while herself had only two, but through mistake slew her own son Itylus, and for her punishment was transformed by Jupiter into a nightingale. [back]
Note 2. Lavinia, mourning for her mother Amata, who, impelled by grief and indignation for the supposed death of Turnus, destroyed herself. [back]
Note 3. “The primal blessings.” Spiritual good. [back]
Note 4. “The inferior.” Temporal good. [back]
Note 5. “Now.” “It is impossible for any being, either to hate itself, or to hate the First Cause of all, by which it exists. We can therefore rejoice only in the evil which befalls others.” [back]
Note 6. “There is.” The proud. [back]
Note 7. There is.” The envious. [back]
Note 8. “There is he.” The resentful. [back]


Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.