David Rigsbee is a regular visitor to Ireland (as external examiner of the writing program at NUIG. His work has appeared in many publications, including The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and many others. He is the author of over twenty books of poetry, criticism, and non-fiction, most recently This Much I Can Tell You, my 11th collection of poems (Black Lawrence Press, 2017).
[Dante and Beatrice rise to the sphere of the Sun (the fourth sphere), where he meets the Doctors of the Church, who are introduced by Saint Thomas Aquinas.]
Contemplating His Son with the love
that each of them breathes always,
the great and ineffable Original has created
everything in mind and space
with such order that whoever encounters 5
that harmony can’t fail to behold His presence.
So raise your vision, reader, to the great
wheels and look straight toward the part
where the one motion strikes the other.
And there begin to contemplate 10
the Master who so loves his work
that his eye is forever fixed there.
Behold next how the oblique circle
branching from that point carries the planets
to satisfy the earth that calls to them. 15
If that star road were not slanted
the heavenly virtues would be in vain
and nearly all power here below—dead,
and if that track departed a little
more or a little less from its course, 20
both hemispheres would suffer disorder.
Now, reader, don’t leave the table,
think of your delight in the foretaste,
consider how you hope to dine before retiring.
I have prepared your fare, now eat 25
because the matter of which I am the scribe
calls now for my complete attention.
The greatest Minister of nature,
who imprints earth with heaven’s hallmark
and measures time with light, now 30
in conjunction with that part I
showed you, was riding those spirals
that make him appear earlier each day.
And I was with him, the sun,
but no more conscious of soaring upward 35
than one is of an abrupt thought’s arrival.
It is Beatrice who guides our flight
going from good to better so suddenly
that time has no way of measuring it.
How brilliant were the lights 40
I saw on entering the sun; I knew them
not by color, but by their manifest glory.
Even if I called upon genius, art,
and custom, I could not get you to imagine;
you must believe and long to see. 45
If our fantasies are too base
to attain such a height, no wonder: the eye
has never met a brightness beyond sunlight.
Such was the fourth sphere
where the High Father, always fulfilling, 50
shows how He breathes and engenders.
And Beatrice: “Give thanks
to the Sun of the Angels, by whose grace
you have been raised to this physical one.”
Never was a mortal heart 55
so disposed to Godly devotion, to yield
so wholly to Love in willing gratitude
as mine was at those words
and so committed to the giving of that love
that Beatrice was eclipsed and put from mind. 60
Nor was she displeased but smiled
and her eyes laughed at the splendor,
returning my mind to its divided view.
I saw living flashes in which we
formed a center, and they a crown, with voices 65
sweeter in sound than light in brilliance.
It’s just as with Latona’s daughter
who, when the air is full and holds the thread,
makes about her a halo of woven air.
In Heaven’s court, from which I 70
have returned, such precious gems exist
that they cannot be taken from that realm,
and those singing lights were one.
Whoever does not take wing to reach that kingdom
must await tidings from the mute here below. 75
After those ardent suns, while still singing,
had circled us three times, even as those
wheeling stars close to the fixed poles,
they seemed to me like ladies
who had just paused in dancing, listening 80
for the next notes to begin their steps again
and from within one light I heard a voice:
“Since grace is the kindling of true love, love
itself grows accordingly the more it loves,
grows, shines in splendor 85
and increases, leading you up a ladder where
none goes down who does not ascend again.
Whoever should withhold his wine
from your thirst would be no more free
than clogged water bound for the sea. 90
You would like to know what plants
knit the garland that circles that beautiful lady
who gives you strength for Heaven.
I was a lamb of the holy flock
that Domninic leads down his path, where 95
one, if he did not stray, would fatten.
This one nearest to my right
was both brother and my master: Albert
of Cologne, and I am Thomas of Aquino.
If you would like to know all 100
the others, then follow my speech as it comes
to each face turning on this blessed wreath.
The next flame is that of the smile
of Gratian, who served two courts of law so well
that it pleases Paradise to welcome him. 105
The other, who adorns our choir
was that Peter, who, like the poor widow,
offered his treasure to the Holy Church.
The fifth and most beautiful light
among us inspires such love that the world 110
down below yearns for tidings of it.
His flame enfolds a mind so deep
in its wisdom that if truth is true, never
could a second have arisen. Next you see
the flame of that candle, who, 115
when it inhabited flesh below, peered most
within the nature of angels and their ministry.
Out of that small candle comes
the smile of an advocate from Christian times
who, out of his Latin, furnished Augustine. 120
Now if your mind has followed
my praise from light to light you will be keen
to know who shines in the eighth flame.
The holy soul rejoices to know
the good that lives within and reveals 125
the world’s deception to any who would hear.
The body from which it was evicted
lies down in Cieldauro, and it was from
martyrdom and exile that he came to this place.
Farther on you see flame that is 130
the urgent breath of Isadore, of Bede, and Richard
who in contemplation was more than man.
The light from which you return
your attention is the light of that one grave
spirit who deemed that death came too slowly. 135
It is the eternal light of Sigir, who lectured
on the Street of Straw, revealing in syllogisms
awkward truths that earned him resentment.”
Then like the clock intoning the hour
when the Bride of God is roused to sing 140
matins to the Bridegroom to further his love
each part to the other pulls and thrusts
in tintinnabulations so sweet that the willing
soul feels the spirit of love surging.
So I witnessed the rotation of that glorious 145
wheel that moved and sang voice to voice
with such sweetness and harmony as to be
unknowable, except where joy meets the eternal.
28, The greatest Minister of nature—I.e., the sun.
67, Latona’s daughter—I.e., the moon.
82, I heard a voice—The speaker is St. Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), author of Summa Theologica, preeminent philosopher of the Middle Ages and main source of Dante’s theology.
97, This one—Aquinas begins introducing Doctors of the Church, a Catholic designation of persons of exceptional talent in theology.
98-99, Albert of Cologne—Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), bishop and philosopher.
104, Gratian—Twelfth century scholar, author of Concordia discordantium canonum, work of canonical law, synthesizing ecclesiastical and civil law.
107, Peter—Petrus Lombardus, Bishop of Paris (d. 1160). His work, Sententiarum Libri IV, a collection of texts of the Church Fathers. His work Dante compares as parallel to that of Gratian.
109, the fifth and most beautiful light—Solomon, whose Song of Songs was considered a wedding hymn of the Church and God.
115, the flame of that candle—Dionysus the Areopagite, a judge who, in Acts (12:34), was converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul.
120, Augustine—St. Augustine (354-430), author of Civitatis Dei (The City of God), Confessions, and other works of enduring influence.
123, the eighth flame—Boethius (ca. 470-524). His Consolation of Philosophy, was written as he was awaiting execution.
128, Cieldauro—Church of St. Peter in Pavia, where Boethius’ remains were interred.
130, Isadore—Isadore of Seville (ca. 560-636), Archbishop of Seville and Doctor of the Church. Author of Etymologie, an encyclopedia of classical learning.
130, Bede—The Venerable Bede (ca. 672 – 735), historian. Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII.
130, Richard—Richard of St. Victor (d. circa 1173), Scottish philosopher. Called The Great Contemplator.
136, Siger—Siger of Brabant (ca. 1240-ca. 1284), philosopher, University of Paris. He was cited for heresy by the Grand Inquisitor of France for his teachings and fled to Orvieto, where he was stabbed to death by his secretary.
137, Street of Straw—At the University of Paris (rue du Fouarre), the site of open-air classes.