Literature: November 2007 Archives

How What is Divided Grows


I post two separate entries on Dante because while they abut one another in the poetry, they seem to go separate directions in thought. And this particular point is one that a lot of people have difficulty remembering because this world is so limited.

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?" He replied:

"Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

If you visit colonial houses, you will often find on the wall sconces with convex mirrors or polished surfaces behind them. The purpose was to capture the light from a single candle and use it more efficiently. And so Dante's metaphor. Love that falls on a surface ready to receive it both lights that surface to the degree that it is prepared to be lit, and is "multiplied" to reflect from other such surfaces. Love, as we are well aware, does not diminish in the division, but paradoxically, multiplies. The metaphor of reflection is a clear and perfect trope for the activity of love.

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From Dante: The Remedy for Envy


Here, Virgil explains to Dante how to remedy the evil of envy:

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"It is because you focus on the prize
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say 'ours'--not 'mine'--
by that much is each richer and brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine."

In Heaven, as we will discover in continuing our reading, there is no zero-sum game--no, you do better so I do worse. St. Therese expressed it in a metaphor of flowers--some are lilies, some are roses, and some are the little buttercups that grace the feet of the most high, but all are loved equally and all are pleased to be what the Lord has ordained that they be. Our place in Heaven, whatever it is ordained to be, like our crosses, are uniquely made for us--no other person will fit into them. Nor will we be able to fit into that place designed for another. This is the economy of salvation and blessedness. We may not stand with Dominic or Francis, or John of the Cross. We may be rubbing elbows with people who we would disdain here on Earth. But there, we are exactly what God fashioned, corrected of all fault and flaw through the suffering of purgatory and placed exactly where we will do the most good for all.

Envy has no place on heaven; hence, it should have no place on Earth. Our object, in so much as aided by the Holy Spirit we can, is to make this world a true reflection of the kingdom of Heaven.

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Dante's Purgatory


Two points from Ciardi's translation that I found fascinating and beautiful. At the end of Canto IX, Dante and Virgil enter purgatory proper, having spent the first part of the book in a place at the base of the mount called ante-purgatory. And the passage below describes the first experiences of purgatory:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

The Tarpeian rock-face, in that fatal hour
that robbed it of Metellus, and then the treasure,
did not give off so loud and harsh a roar

as did the pivots of the holy gate--
which were of resonant and hard-forged metal--
when they turned under their enormous weight.

At the first thunderous roll I turned half-round,
for it seemed to me I heard a chorus singing
Te deum laudamus mixed with that sweet sound.

I stood there and the strains that reached my ears
left on my soul exactly that impression
a man receives who goes to church and hears

the choir and organ ringing out their chords
and now does, now does not, make out the words.

Which sounds should be sharply contrasted with the first sounds heard in Hell.

On another point, Ciardi makes the following note:

from Purgatorio Note to Canto IX
John Ciardi

I owe Professor MacAllister a glad thanks for what is certainly the essential clarification. The whole Purgatorio, he points out, is build upon the structure of a Mass. The Mass moreover is happening not on the mountain but in church with Dante devoutly following its well-known steps. I have not yet had time to digest Professor MacAllister's suggestion, but it strikes me immediately as a true insights and promises another illuminating way of reading the .

And I would add to that last line, of reading our lives in faith. Part of our Purgatory are the hours gladly spent here on Earth working out the scars and physical remains of sin in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Attended with proper reverence, attention, and intention, the Holy Prayer of the Mass advances us far beyond any other activity in which we might engage. Done in the proper spirit of confession and contrition for sins, the activity of Mass begins here on Earth what is completed afterwards by those who have not achieved God's perfection in Purgatory. And perhaps that begins to help us understand what Purgatory actually is.

One final, wonderful point. The efficiency and efficacy of Ciardi's notes are such that one is led to the following passge of Lucan's Pharsalia:

At this Metellus yielded from the path;
And as the gates rolled backward, echoed loud
The rock Tarpeian, and the temple's depths
Gave up the treasure which for centuries
No hand had touched:

Read the entire work--a recounting of Caesar's return from the battle of the Rubicon here.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from November 2007.

Literature: October 2007 is the previous archive.

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