Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
A selection from the Divine Comedy

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A selection from the Divine Comedy

From Purgatory, canto 31

Our Poem of the Week is an excerpt from Canto 31 of the Divine Comedy, my own translation. The pilgrim Dante is on the top of the mountain of Purgatory, and he has just been immersed in the River Lethe, which washes his sins from his memory, not, I think, that he doesn’t recall having committed them, but that they are no longer felt as a part of him. It’s as if they’re as far away as earth from heaven. And he longs to see the face of his beloved Beatrice. He has seen her, but she had rebuked him and had caused him to weep for what he had done, so now he will see her for the first time since his purification. So the three dancing ladies, Faith, Hope, and Charity, taking their turn after the four ladies who represented the four cardinal virtues, lead Dante to Beatrice, and they call upon her to look at him — to turn her eyes to him, and to unveil to him the beauty that fills her eyes with light beyond their light. That is, they are asking her to smile upon him in love. It will be her first smile in the Divine Comedy, the first of many.

Sometimes the things we see most often in life are the most mysterious, but it takes a great poet to make us consider them in truth, to find in them a source of wonder. One of them is the human face. Oh, I’m quite aware that all the mammals have faces, and birds and fish too. I am looking at the face of our terrier puppy Molly, who looks at me with her jet-black pupils, like two little onyx marbles, and I know that she wants to see my face; why, our old dog Jasper of happy memory, he of the 80 tricks, would “look me in the eye” on command, planting his paws on my chest and gazing into my face, waiting for the next motion or word of affection or command. Yes, I do know that animals have faces, and they need them, too, to see in front of them, and to make some signals to their fellows. And yet the human face is more — expressive of a mind, a person, whose thoughts are not bound by what appears before his eyes, and whose love can soar beyond the stars.

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“The human face divine,” that’s what Milton called it after he had gone blind, and he longed to look upon it again. That’s exactly right: the noun between the two adjectives, with the more important one as the climax: divine. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dante would have understood the insight. Imagine to have been blind from birth, and to see a human face for the first time. More: imagine that you don’t see his face until he turns: what a stupendous moment it must be! For one of the characteristics of having a face is that you do turn to look upon someone you love. And then, with the smile, it is like the sun rising over the horizon. That is Dante’s experience here. It is so powerful, that there is no more to say — the canto ends just here, with the poet’s expression of speechlessness. Yet he could not have expressed himself more fully if he had taken a thousand words to do it. We too see the blessed woman’s face, though Dante has not described a single feature. Brilliant — and deeply human.

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“Dante and Beatrice,” John William Waterhouse. Public domain.
While full of wonderment my happy soul
   tasted the food that whets the appetite
   with the first taste that satisfies in full,
Showing themselves by action to belong
   to a higher tribe, the other three came forth,
   dancing in measure to their angel song.
"Turn, Beatrice, turn your holy eyes,"
   so did they sing, "unto your faithful one,
   he who has come so far to look on you!
Do us the grace for grace's sake, unveil
   your lips to him, that he may finally
   behold the second beauty you conceal."
Eternal radiance of living light!
   Who ever sipped of the Castalian spring
   or paled upon Parnassus' wooded height,
Would not now find his mind a burdened thing,
   attempting to portray you as you seemed,
   where Heaven had shaded you in harmony
And freely in the air your beauty gleamed?

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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