Ravenna, Italy, August 1321
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed, This wood, so harsh, dismal and wild, that fear At thought of it now strikes into my breast. So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer. Yet there I gained such good, that to convey The tale, I’ll write what else I found therewith.
CANTO I, THE DIVINE COMEDY
I was but one and twenty years advanced upon this sphere, When I set my feet, none too soon –the Master’s voice to hear– To rich Ravenna, where he’d fled, to beg some shelter there.
I am a Portinari, a cousin of Beatrice of the same name. That is why he agreed, not only to let me come to see him in Ravenna, but hear him recite part of his masterpiece. He had not seen Florence for nearly twenty years. As he said of himself, he was “a Florentine by birth but not in character.” This is what the bitterness of the “woeful poverty” to which he had been condemned taught him.
By the memory of my blessed cousin, I could not blame him for hating what our City had done to him. As soon as the Pope appointed Charles of Valois to mediate the dispute between the Blacks and the Whites in Florence, the Black government Valois set up began its persecutions. To their eternal disgrace, the Blacks sued il nostra piu grande poeta; and when he refused to come to trial, they confiscated his property and condemned him to death by fire if he should ever be caught in Florentine territory. What a way to treat our greatest poet, a man always devoted to peace! They regretted it too late, after he had died the year I met him. Ravenna still refuses to permit our city to reclaim his body.
But how sweet, how warm, how tender, were his words when he spoke of his children, or of Beatrice. Hearing him speak of them, you would never have known how much he had suffered.
His son Pietro brought me to his room in the home of Guido Novello da Polenta, a gentleman who knew how great an honor it was to have him as a guest. Bundled in a great cloak despite the heat of the day, he peered out at me like a monk through his cowl, and scowled to me at first: “Ah, Portinari, my young Florentine: Are the wolves still devouring the lambs? Or are they beginning to fear the justice of the Shepherd?” “There are still many wild dogs growling in Florence,” I replied, taking my hat off to him, “but not even the wolves can deny the beauty of the music you have made, which rings everywhere throughout the city.” He was clearly not in his best spirits, but my compliment made him smile with pleasure, and he invited me to sit with him.
“In God’s own time, and in God’s own way, justice will come to them,” he said.
“Maestro,” I ventured after a moment’s thought, “your words bring to my mind a terrible question.” “Ask!” he answered sternly, his scowl returning. “In the third Canto you tell that on the gates of Hell are inscribed the words ‘Through me is the way to eternal pain; through me the way among the people lost. Justice moved my Great Maker; Divine Power made me, Wisdom Supreme, and Eternal Love.’ How can it be, Signore, that Eternal Love could have fashioned the torments of Hell? How can that be ‘justice’ if the Lamb of God died to save us?”
He gazed at me for a time, with looks of such growing compassion I felt myself humbled before him, and feared I had asked too ignorant a question. “It is not your youth alone that asks this question;” he told me, “it is the question any man who feels the pain of living must ask himself.” He began to cough, and could not seem to stop. I feared that he would suffocate, and was going to run for Pietro. But then he reached for a glass of wine, drunk a deep draught, and stopped coughing.
“Finding an answer to this question is what gave my poem a vision of Happiness so complete I have called it my ‘Commedia.’ You must never stop asking yourself this question, Portinari. Pursuit of its answer is a blessed thing, inspired by God Himself. Its answer is a mystery; but a mystery that Revelation can unlock, just as the sight of a young girl, so many years ago, unlocked my own childish heart. It is because of my own desire to answer this question that I kept my vow to Beatrice to honor her as no woman before had ever been honored.”
He returned to silence again, looking within himself before he looked back at me. Then he stood up, and walking to the other side of his small room, barked at me: “Let me hear, Portinari, the words of the 23rd Psalm.”
“The Lord is my shepherd,” I began with a start, “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…”
“Stop!”, he commanded me. “Whose words are those?”
“They are King David’s words,” I answered.
“And before he was anointed, before he slew Goliath, who was the boy David?”
“He was a shepherd, Maestro.”
“And how does a shepherd use his rod and his staff, Portinari?”
“He uses them to guide his straying sheep back to the path he has set.”
“And what happens to straying sheep when the shepherd sleeps?”
“They are lost, Maestro, or eaten by wolves.”
“Have you never strayed, Portinari, from a path you knew to be right?”
“Of course I have, Maestro. Am I not a man?”
“And when you felt what you had done, were you not in Hell? When you hate, Portinari, are you not in Hell? When your heart is cold, Portinari, are you not in Hell?”
He did not wait for my answer, but instead asked: “Have you loved, Portinari?” And again my answer was: “Of course I have, Maestro. Am I not a man?”
“Tell me, Portinari, about the first time you loved.”
“She was from the city of our birth. Her skin was as white as milk, and her voice was the sweetness of music. Just to see her, and to watch her move, was bliss. The thought of touching her was sometimes more than I could bear for long, but, though I was just a boy myself, I would never have done anything to dishonor her. She died young, Maestro, like our Beatrice.”
“Such a love cannot be forgot, can it Portinari? Such love gives us as pure and rare a vision of the beautiful as earthly eyes can see. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ You knew, in your love for her, the innocent love of Eden. I too still know such love sometimes, when I see my daughter’s tenderness towards a disappointed old man, and my grandson’s smile.”
I could see sweat beginning to pour from his great brow, and he began to shiver. He gathered his great cloak even more closely around him, though the room was almost too warm for me, then returned to sit by my side. “This cold of the body is nothing, Portinari, compared to the iciness of the soul when it has abandoned all that it once loved. ‘The Love that moves the sun and other stars’ is the same Love that tortures us to return when we have left it, inviting us, imploring us, prodding us, striking us with all its power, to return to its warmer embrace.
“There is no greater sin, my dear young Florentine, than to turn your back upon a benefactor, to betray him with a heart, not of fire, but of stone and ice, as our Florentines have betrayed so many, as Brutus betrayed his father Caesar, as Judas betrayed his Master, and as, every day, we turn our backs on the God who gave us all there is to have by refusing to love what he has given us to love.
“But even when we have sunk low, we may rise again and again to remember the sun. Not through reason –reason alone, Portinari, even the reasoning of Saint Thomas himself, can do no more than bring us out of Hell; it can never, never, alone, raise us to the heights of Heaven’s gate. But yet, when all hope seems to have gone, when old friends have left you, and you are tossed like a ship without a sail and without a rudder, wafted to divers havens and inlets and shores, by the parching wind woeful poverty exhales, even then, Portinari, we may be given a grace to return to His Love. It was in the grace of that faith beyond Reason, which is the knowledge only God can give, that I once
‘…beheld leaves within the unfathomed blaze Into one volume bound by love, the same That the universe holds scattered through its maze. Substance and accidents, and their modes became As if together fused, all in such wise That what I speak of is one simple flame. Verily, I think I saw with my own eyes The form that knits the whole world, since I taste, In telling of it, more abounding bliss…. Thus did my mind in suspense of thought Gaze fixedly, all immovable and intent, And ever fresh fire from its grazing caught’drawn by ‘the Love that moves the sun and other stars.‘ “
With this he hung his head and began to shake and, gesturing to me to leave, asked that I send to him “il mio caro Pietro.”
I continue to reflect upon the question I asked him, to regain the vision he so clearly saw and tried, with such magnificence, to help us see:
For on this road we’re bound upon, from darkness to the light, He carved a path for us to take when day has turned to night, To see the sun most deep within, there at its greatest height.
For Harrison’s Commentary on Dante see Confessions of a Dante Reader.