Beyond the Human

Jamie McKendrick

What do humans do in heaven? Not too much, though not too little, according to St Augustine, who foresees ‘leisure for the praises of God’ with ‘no inactivity of idleness, and yet no toil constrained by want’. But eternity is a fair stretch: over millennia, any activity might begin to pall. The 19th-century Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli claims in his sonnet ‘Er paradiso’:

                   in paradiso
Nun perdi tempo co ggnisun lavoro:
Nun ce trovi antro che vviolini, riso
E ppandescèlo

                    in heaven
you don’t waste time with any work:
there’s nothing but violins, laughter
and heaven’s bread

For Belli’s Roman worker, heaven mainly means not having to graft, and there’s the bonus of free food – a cross between communion wafers and panettone, his ‘ppandescèlo’ probably a nod to the ‘pan de li angeli’ in Dante’s Paradiso.

With Dante, though, it’s a different story. In the first canto of this third part of his Commedia, he links the words valor and lavoro, ‘worth’ and ‘work’, as near anagrams and almost synonyms. But Belli’s knowingly satirical rhyme, paradiso/riso, common since at least the 13th-century Sicilian sonneteer Giacomo da Lentini, is one that Dante employs often, and the almost interchangeable riso and sorriso (‘laughter’ and ‘smile’, though both are usually translated into English as ‘smile’) figure prominently in the Paradiso. Beatrice is constantly wreathed in smiles, as the sinister saying goes. Christina Rossetti, in a note to one of her poems, complains that both Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura ‘have come down to us resplendent with charms, but … scant of attractiveness’. These smiles at least partly offset that impression: they’re the encouraging accompaniment of what, for Dante, ascending through the Ptolomeic heavens, from the moon and the planets to the Empyrean, is a steep learning curve.

The Paradiso is the least read of the Commedia’s three cantiche, and the hardest work. If for no other reason, these two new English translations, one by Robin Kirkpatrick, the other by the husband and wife team of Robert and Jean Hollander, should be welcomed. Each edition is the final volume of a long labour, and each helps the reader see this last cantica in the context of the previous two. With Virgil as his guide, Dante has already spiralled down through hell, seen what goes wrong, and progressively wronger, with the human spirit, and has then been taken up in an opposite spiral through the rocky terraces of Mount Purgatory, where souls are gradually mended. Dante describes this movement with beautiful economy in Purgatory 23 as ‘salendo e rigirando la montagna/che drizza voi che ’l mondo fece torti’ (‘climbing up and turning round the mountain/which straightens you whom the world twisted awry’). Heaven, we’re told in Paradiso 16, is where our appetites are no longer twisted (‘là dove appetito non si torce’). So no wine and no panettone.

Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide when Virgil reaches his permitted limit at the summit of Purgatory, in the Earthly Paradise, until she, in turn, is replaced by St Bernard for the last cantos. Along the way, she instructs Dante in the significance of what he beholds and of much else besides, including astronomy, the properties of light, theology, free will and the nature of God. If this makes the poem seem like a combined honours course, or several at once, the impression isn’t mistaken, for Dante himself undergoes an intense viva on the Christian virtues by Saints Peter, James and John. Beatrice begins one typical lesson by saying ‘secondo mio infallibile avviso’ (‘in my infallible opinion’) but her teaching is not only administered with smiles: she puts on a whole firework display of inner glowing. The words for light indefatigably multiply through the poem: luce, lume, raggio, sfavilla, baleno, scintilla, splendore, fulgore. In the notes accompanying his translation, Kirkpatrick makes helpful distinctions between Dante’s use of the first three, though this is far from exhausting the language of light in which the Paradiso excels. A representative line, from Canto 19, is ‘raggio di sole ardesse sì acceso’, where, apart from the two slender monosyllables, there’s no lightless word to cast a shadow.

The journey proper begins with an instantaneous ascent through the sphere of fire. Then there’s a Moon landing, where, after a dull lesson on Moon spots, Dante meets the not quite immaculate spirits who have failed to keep their vows. From there he and Beatrice ascend to Mercury, zone of the law-makers and politicos, and thence to Venus, where they meet the amorous and attractive Cunizza da Romano. Their next stop is the Sun, where the wise, such as Thomas Aquinas and Solomon, are congregated. Then they travel to Mars and meet heaven’s warriors, the Church Militant, including Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida. Jupiter is the heaven of justice; moving on to Saturn, Dante finds the contemplatives ascending and descending a Jacob’s ladder. In Canto 22, two-thirds of the way through the poem, Dante and Beatrice are assumed into the Heaven of Fixed Stars, where he is catechised on faith, hope and charity. There he meets Adam. Then they rise to the ninth heaven, the Crystalline Sphere and the Empyrean, which occupy the poem’s final seven cantos.

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