Contents | December 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Poetry Pages: "Dante & Co." (November 1, 1995)
Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Pinsky—together in cyberspace. Hear Pinsky read aloud from his acclaimed translation of the Inferno. By Wen Stephenson.
The Atlantic Monthly | December 2001
"Virgin mother, daughter of your son,
by Dante Alighieri, translated by W. S. Merwin
more lowly and more exalted than any creature,
the eternal counsel's fixed conclusion,
you are the one who so ennobled
human nature that the maker of it
condescended to be made of it.
In your womb the love was lit again
from whose warmth, in the eternal peace
this flower has been brought, thus, to open.
You are for us here the noonday torch
of charity, and there below, among
mortals, you are hope, its living spring.
You, lady, are so great and so availing
that whoever wants grace without turning
to you for it hopes to fly without a wing.
Your benevolence not only helps the one
who asks, but often it will run
freely to be ahead of the petition.
In you is mercy, in you is pity,
in you is bounty, in you, brought together,
all the good there is in any creature.
Now this one who, from the lowest hole
of the universe to here, has seen
the lives of the spirits one by one,
begs you, of your grace, for the power that will
allow him to lift his eyes up even
higher, turning toward the last salvation.
And I, who never burned for my own vision
more than I do for his, raise toward you all
my prayers, and pray they may not be too little,
for you, with your own prayers, to set him free
from every cloud of his mortality
and so disclose the supreme joy to him.
To you who can do all that you will, queen,
I pray, furthermore, that you will keep sound
his affections after all he has seen.
May your guard overcome human urges;
behold, with Beatrice, how many saints
for my prayers join toward you their hands."
The eyes that God delights in and reveres,
fixed upon the one who had made the prayer,
showed how dear devout prayers are to her.
Then they turned toward the eternal light
into which we must not believe the eye
of any creature can pass as clearly.
And I, who was coming close to the end
of all desires, within myself refined
appropriately the fire of my longing.
Bernard, with a smile, made me a sign
to look upward, but I was already,
of myself, as he wanted me to be,
for my vision entered, as it grew
pure, deeper and deeper into the beam
of the high light which of itself is true.
After that, what I saw was greater than
speech can portray, for at such a vision
it fails, and at that extreme, memory fails.
As one who sees when he is dreaming, and
after the dream the imprint of the passion
stays, and the rest does not come back to mind,
so am I, for almost all of my
vision has vanished, and still the sweetness born
from it is distilled in my heart to me.
Thus in the sun the snow loses its seal;
thus in the wind whatever oracle
the sibyl left on the light leaves is lost.
O highest light, lifted so far above
mortal conception, lend my mind again
a little of the way you appeared then
and to my tongue grant the ability
to leave to the people of the future
only one single spark of your glory,
for by returning to my memory
somewhat, and sounding in these lines a little,
more will be understood of your victory.
I believe that so piercing was the ray
which I endured that I would have been lost
if from it I had turned my eyes away.
And I remember that for that reason
I sustained it more boldly, until my vision
and the infinite goodness became one.
O grace abounding, that brought me to dare
direct my gaze through the eternal light
until I poured into it all my sight!
In its depths I saw that it contained,
by love into a single volume bound,
the scattered pages of the universe;
substances, accidents, and their relations
in such a way seemed to be mingled that
what I say is a simple glimmer of it.
I believe I saw the universal
form of this knot because I can feel
my joy expanding as I tell of it.
One moment brings me more oblivion
than five and twenty centuries brought upon
Neptune's wonder at the Argo's shadow.
So my mind, wholly caught up, went on
gazing with a fixed and motionless attention,
by its own gaze constantly kept burning.
One becomes such, in that light, that it would be
impossible ever to turn away
willingly to see anything else,
for the good, which is the object of the will,
is all there in it and what within it
is perfect is defective outside it.
From here on my tongue will fall even shorter,
with regard to what I can remember,
than an infant's still bathing at the breast.
Not because more than one simple aspect
was in the living light into which I gazed,
which is the same always as it was,
but through my sight which, as it gazed, was growing
stronger, one single appearance was taking
shape before me while I myself was changing.
Inside the deep and clear subsistence
of the exalted light three circles of three
colors and one magnitude appeared to me;
and the one seemed reflected in the other
as a rainbow in a rainbow, and the third seemed
fire breathed equally from one and the other.
Oh, how short speech falls, and how feeble
for my conception which, after what I saw,
cannot even be described as "little."
O light eternal who in yourself alone
abide, and alone know yourself and, known
to yourself, love and smile on yourself!
That circling which, conceived thus, came to be
seen in you as reflected light, when my
eyes studied it for a time, seemed to me,
within itself and in its own color,
to be painted with our own likeness
so that my sight was held completely there.
As the geometer who concentrates
on measuring the circle and cannot
find the needed principle in his thought,
so was I, at what I had just seen:
I wished to see how the image fitted
in the circle and what place it occupied,
but my wings had not been made for there,
although there was one flash that struck my mind,
bringing to it what it was wishing for.
Here power failed the high fantasy,
but my desire and will were turned already,
like a wheel that is moved evenly,
by the love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2001; Paradiso XXXIII; Volume 288, No. 5; 84-85.