The Divine Comedy – Looking into Heaven – Clive James

Heaven (The Divine Comedy)
Canto 31 – lines 1 – 33

The form, then, of the saintly host of Christ
Was shown to me as being a white rose,
A perfect rose which, with His own blood, Christ
Has made His bride. But also there are those –
The other host – who, flying, see and sing
The glory of the Lord who holds their love
And goodness that has made them everything
They are, and there they are, at large above.
Just like a swarm of bees that first will dive
Into the flowers and then go back to turn
Their toil to nectar, treasure of the hive,
These ones I watched, for I was here to learn –
Descend headlong into the mighty flower
Of many petals, and then reascend
To where the love abides in all its power
Forever, and then, flying without end,
They swoop again, their faces living flame,
Their wings of gold, and for the rest, so white
Our fresh snow couldn’t hope to seem the same.
When they again went back down from the height
Into the bloom, they gave it, tier on tier,
The peace and order they had gained from how
They fanned their sides with wings. …

Translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy by Clive James

My interpretation of the above lines –

The form, then, of the saintly host of Christ
Was shown to me as being a white rose,
A perfect rose which, with His own blood, Christ
Has made His bride.

The host of Christ – a host is someone who presents … someone who invites and entertains … a master of ceremonies … and in the religious context the host of Christ is the consecrated bread … and the consecrated bread is the gift of Christ as the body of Christ created with his own blood – Dante represents this as a perfect white rose – it has to be white no other colour could represent Christ and it has to be perfect.

Christ has made this His Bride … the Bride of Christ gifted for the marriage of His Church through the consecrated bread (body)and wine (blood)… the words from the Anglican Communion Service define this union (marriage) – ‘We who are many are one body in Christ, for we all share in the one bread’ – the gift of life for all’. This marriage is a continual marriage as the world expands in population.

But also there are those –
The other host – who, flying, see and sing
The glory of the Lord who holds their love
And goodness that has made them everything
They are, and there they are, at large above.

Who are these ‘other hosts’ … my interpretation is that they are those that have been transformed to such an extent through the marriage of Christ that they themselves have become totally ‘Christ-like’ spiritually – and everything that they are comes from the Lord, they are flying and singing the glory of the Lord – angels also comes to mind, and they are at large –very much an active force.

Just like a swarm of bees that first will dive
Into the flowers and then go back to turn
Their toil to nectar, treasure of the hive,
These ones I watched, for I was here to learn –
Descend headlong into the mighty flower
Of many petals, and then reascend
To where the love abides in all its power
Forever, and then, flying without end,
They swoop again, their faces living flame,
Their wings of gold, and for the rest, so white
Our fresh snow couldn’t hope to seem the same.

The ‘other hosts’ are in a hive of activity being equated to the action of bees diving into the Christ-Host – the white rose – creating nectar, the treasure found in the gift of Christ and the treasure that they create returning that to the Lord (where love abides in all its power). The image of faces of living flame, wings of gold, and bodies beyond the white of snow try to give a physical representation to the spiritual transformation that has occurred – a living perfection of nature – and a nature that is dynamic and busy.

When they again went back down from the height
Into the bloom, they gave it, tier on tier,
The peace and order they had gained from how
They fanned their sides with wings.

Bees actually fan their wings when they come into the hive to control temperature. This is interesting for the implication is that the Christ-Host is supported by other hosts which give peace and order – supported by those that have become fully Christ-like.

This seems to portray Heaven and the Body of Christ not as an afternoon Sunday nap but a busy active expanding evolution.

A Dante Poem on Love and Beauty

Love is in the air and Valentine’s Day approaches …

From the ‘Love Poems’ of Dante Alighieri …

XXXIV*

“I am a young girl, lovely and a marvel,
And have come here to show to men on earth
Some beauties of the place that gave me birth.

I came from heaven and there I shall return,
Delighting with my light the souls above;
The man who looks on me and does not burn
Will never have the mind to compass love;
For there is nothing fair He failed to give
Who granted Nature the full gift of me
And placed me, ladies, in your company.

There is no star which does not share its light
And power with these eyes; my beauties are
A marvel to the world, for from the height
Of heaven they came down, and from afar;
Knowledge of them cannot be found save where
There lives a man who in himself knows truly
How love makes entrance through another’s beauty.”

These words all men may read upon the face
Of the young angel here revealed, and I
Who gazed on it so fixedly to trace
Her form more truly, now am like to die;
For when I boldly looked her in the eye
I felt the wound which never lets me cease
From weeping, and since then I have no peace.

Dante – the above poem was translated from the Italian by Anthony Mortimer.

Note – * This poem was included in the collection Rhime – essentially a conglomeration of miscellaneous poems written by Dante over the course of his adult life-time.

Looking at the translation, and the line that stirs my thoughts …

How love makes entry through another’s beauty
^ ^ ^ ^^/ ^ ^^ ^^ … we see it is iambic pentameter. How truly the original rhyming flows through is unknown but it appears that Anthony Mortimer has put a lot of thought and poetic skill in producing this translation.

Commenting on each stanza –

S1 – A very strong, and you might say arrogant, statement on the merits of this young girl. But she is saying this as an example of the beauties found in the place of her heavenly birth.

The mind of the reader responds by creating an appropriate image of a beautiful young woman.

S2 – her statement continues … reinforcing her beauty and that she will eventually return to heaven where she delights the souls that live there … and if the man that looks on her does not burn then he knows not love … for she has been given every gift that nature can bestow … she is placed with other ladies (presumably older women and no comparison, highlighting her beauty)

S3 – this is the end of her statement … and it is here that she makes that definitive statement about love in the last line of the stanza … love makes entry through another’s beauty … love is nothing to do with ourselves as such it is how we respond to the beauty that is around us and in recognising that beauty we then have a chance of knowing something of the beauty within heaven

S4 – Dante is saying that everyone can face beauty and know love … note that when he became besotted and tried to trace her form more truly he was wounded without peace … hard to imagine a beauty of such intensity – but then we approach the divine who we can never see with our veiled eyes

… but it might be that he has been distracted from Beatrice  – the ultimate in beauty in his climb through the inferno … for looking at the background to this work …

This poem may well be connected with an incident in Purgatory XXXI (58-60) where Beatrice reproaches Dante for having been led astray by the love of a young girl (pargoletta)

You never should have let your either wing
Flag, for some further blows from some young girl
Or any trumpery, or ephemeral thing.

Reference – Love Poems – Dante Alighieri – Translated by Anthony Mortimer and J.G. Nichols – ALMA Classics (isbn 978-1-84749-345-3)