Dante Sees God

Note: After the Inferno's journey among the damned and the Purgatorio's ascent through the souls still working off their inability to leave behind earthly things so as to rise into the light, in the 33rd canto of the Paradiso Dante is finally led by the soul of St. Bernard of Clarviaux to the presence of the Virgin where he prays.   As the Virgin hears his prayer, she raises her eyes and Dante-the-Pilgrim raises his with hers, and then...

        Because my sight, becoming crystal clear,
        Was piercing deeper and deeper through the rays
        Of that deep Light which in itself is true.

55     From that point on, my power to see was stronger
        Than speech that fails before such sights can show,
        As memory falls short of the beyond.

        As someone who while dreaming sees a vision
        And, after he has dreamed, the feeling stays
60     Impressed, but all the rest slips from his mind,

        I am like that, for almost all my seeing
        Now falls away, but sweetness sprung from it
        Still drips down, drop by drop, into my heart.

        So is the snow unsealed beneath the sunlight;
65     So were the sayings of the Sibyl upon
        The light leaves left to drift off in the wind.

        O highest Light, lifted up so far
        Above all mortal thinking, lend my mind,
        Once more, a little of what you were like,

70     And grant my tongue such powerful expression
        That it may leave behind a single spark
        Of glory for a people still to come.

        For by returning some spark to my mind
75    And sounding out a little in these lines,
        Your triumph shall be thought of more profoundly.

        I think I would have been lost in a daze
        With the dazzling I endured from that live beam
        If my eyes once had turned away from it.

        I remember I grew bolder for this reason
80     In bearing up with it, until I merged
        My gazing with the infinite Goodness.

        O grace abounding, by which I have dared
        To fix my eyes through the eternal Light
        So deeply that my sight was spent in it!

85     Within its depths I saw gathered together,
        Bound by love into a single volume,
        Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.

        Substance and accidents and their relations
        I saw as though they fused in such a way
90     That what I say is but a gleam of light.

        The universal pattern of this knot
        I believe I saw, because in telling this,
        I feel my gladness growing ever larger.

        One moment made more slip my memory than
95     Twenty-five centuries reft from the adventure
        That awed Neptune with the shadow of the Argo.

        So my mind, held in absolute suspense,
        Was staring fixed, intent, and motionless,
        And by its staring grew the more inflamed.

100  Within that Light a person is so changed
        It is impossible to give consent
        Ever to turn from it to other sights

        Because the Good, the object of the will,
        Is gathered all in it, and out of it
105 The thing that there is perfect has some flaw.

        Now shall my telling of what I remember
        Fall far below the babbling of a baby
        Still bathing its tongue at the mother’s breast.

        Not that there is more than a single semblance
110 Within that living Light on which I looked
        And which is always what it was before,

        But by the sight that gathered strength in me
        As I gazed on, what was One in appearance
        Was altering for me as I was changing.

115 In the profound and shining-clear Existence
    Of the deep Light appeared to me three circles
    Of one dimension and three different colors.

        One seemed to be reflected by the other,
        Rainbow by rainbow, while the third seemed fire
120 Breathed equally from one and from the other.

        O how pale now is language and how paltry
        For my conception! And for what I saw
        My words are not enough to call them meager.

        O everlasting Light, you dwell alone
125 In yourself, know yourself alone, and known
        And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!

        That middle circle which appeared in you
        To be conceived as a reflected light,
        After my eyes had studied it a while,

130 Within itself and in its coloring
        Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
        So that my eyes were wholly focused on it.

        As the geometer who sets himself
        To square the circle and who cannot find,
135 For all his thought, the principle he needs,

        Just so was I on seeing this new vision
        I wanted to see how our image fuses
        Into the circle and finds its place in it,

        Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
140 Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
        Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

        Here powers failed my high imagination:
        But by now my desire and will were turned,
        Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

145 By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

[Trans. James Finn Cotter, whose published version of the whole Comedia would make an excellent next step in your studies of the epic tradition.  See information about its construction and publication at: http://www.italianstudies.org/comedy/introduction.htm   and read the rest of the online text at: http://www.italianstudies.org/comedy/index.htm ]