Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 24 – the poetry of light

At her aspect I was changed within. Dante and Beatrice by Ary Scheffer via Wikimedia

Here’s how Dante begins his Paradiso – not with himself, as in his previous two canticas, but with God:

This third and final phase of Dante’s journey begins in the relative world – the world of more or less, of hierarchy, of the many not the One, of the universe as a separate physical entity. By the end of the Paradiso this world will have vanished. It won’t have ceased to exist, but it will be subsumed in the divine essence, which is all that is and ever can be. In the moment of union, Dante’s desire and will, while still individual, will be “moved by the love that moves the sun and the other stars”. That persistence of the self, within a greater consciousness, is what union implies in the Christian mystical tradition to which he belongs.

More than ever, Dante is conscious of the greatness of his theme. As his vision deepens, memory and language alike will fail him, falling progressively shorter of reality: Trasumanar significar per verbe non si porìa, “Passing beyond the human cannot be expressed in words,” he tells us. Yet the poet’s visionary language will transcend this self-imposed limitation, for in this third cantica he will describe suprasensible light, and truth which is, strictly speaking, inconceivable. The potency of Dante’s language lies in its admission of powerlessness: he will liken it, in his closing lines, to the primal utterance of a new-born babe who bathes his tongue at his mother’s breast.

How does Dante move from perceiving the relative to knowing himself as at one with the absolute? Through the purification of vision, the cleansing of defective sight. This is a gift of grace, given to the pure in heart. It is acquired through increasing exposure to light – intellectual light, the light of truth, perceived either directly, if this is not too much for him, or indirectly, by looking into the eyes of Beatrice.

The poetry of light – the golden thread that runs through the Paradiso – begins in a blaze of splendour. It is midday in the earthly paradise, the time when daylight is brightest, when Dante and Beatrice fix their eyes on the sun and are drawn up by its rays:

This is a spectacular display of Dante’s skills as a visionary poet. The full force of the divine power that draws him up bursts upon him in an experience both physical and spiritual, outer change mirrored by inner. The sun’s light is doubled and is dazzlingly reflected, as from a vast lake, while the sight of Beatrice starts to transform his human nature, opening him up to new knowledge. The light show is accompanied by sound – the music of the spheres. This was posited by the Ancient Greeks but never heard by mortals, only by the soul. Dante is not sure whether he is in the body or out of it (the soul is “that part created last”, see Note 20), but these new sights and sounds redouble his thirst for knowledge, the motive force that will power the ascent (see Note 2). It is all immensely theatrical, like the opening scene of an opera – and very exciting!

Ready for take-off: Dante and Beatrice in the earthly paradise. Poul Simon Christiansen via Wikimedia

And that is just for starters. In later cantos we will see how Dante develops the poetry of light and uses it, not merely to create stunning special effects, as here, but to express profound truths about spiritual reality.

Have you ever flown in your dreams? Now’s your opportunity to repeat the experience, clinging, as it were, to the coat tails of Dante and Beatrice. But before we “take off”, a word on how paradise is organized.

The ten heavens we will visit are arranged as concentric spheres, each associated with a specific virtue. Like hell and purgatory, paradise has a threefold structure (see below). In the first three heavens, closest to the earth, the virtues are marred by shadows of earthly imperfections. With the heaven of the sun, unalloyed paradise begins, continuing, via Mars and Jupiter, to Saturn, the outermost of the planets. Beyond this lie the heaven of the fixed stars, the Primum Mobile and the Empyrean. This last is the home of the divine essence, where all place is here, all time is now.

Starting from earth, at the centre of the material universe, we will ascend through the following spheres:

• The moon: faithfulness marred by inconstancy

• Mercury: service marred by ambition

• Venus: love marred by wantonness

• The Sun: wisdom

• Mars: courage

• Jupiter: justice

• Saturn: temperance

• The fixed stars: the Church Triumphant

• The Primum Mobile: the Angelic Orders

• The Empyrean: the Holy Trinity, Virgin, Angels and Saints

Plan of paradise

Copyright Christel Chater

Next time, I’ll fly you to the moon!

Genius line:
Trasumanar significar per verbe non si porìa. One of the Comedy’s most famous lines. Dante invents a new word, trasumanar, to express the transformative experience that awaits him.