Paradise from The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three
parts, describing the poet’s imagined journey
through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and
culminating in his vision of God.
To this extent it has much in common with the
epic masterpieces of Homer and Virgil whose roots
are in history and myth; but the ‘Commedia’ is
also an allegory, dealing with nothing less than
man’s relationship with and place within the
universe. Dante’s universe was, of course, a
medieval one in which the sun and stars revolved
around the Earth, and while the ‘Commedia’ takes
account of contemporary science in minute detail,
his vision of the way in which the regions of the
afterworld might be contained within this
framework is brilliant in its originality. Hell (the
Inferno) is conceived as a tapering funnel
plunging down into the earth beneath the
Northern hemisphere. At its deepest point a
passage leads out into the Southern hemisphere,
where Mount Purgatory—its shape mirroring that
of Hell—tapers upwards towards Heaven. Paradise
itself is conceived as a series of ten ‘spheres’
encircling the Earth, with God somewhere beyond
the tenth, merely glimpsed by Dante as
consciousness ebbs from him.
This colossal construction is subdivided to create
a zone for every facet of human nature. In Hell
and Purgatory a place is allotted for every sin and
foible which exists within the world, while in
Paradise the pure and just, the saints and the Holy
Trinity are arranged in a strict hierarchy. Dante peoples each region with figures from literature,
history and from his own contemporary society.
This allows him to comment on issues of morality
not in merely abstract terms, but in relation to
actual people and events, many of them of
titillating contemporary relevance. Because of this
many of the names encountered mean nothing to
modern readers, and this is one of the reasons
why most editions of Dante incorporate many
pages of notes for each page of text (a practice
which began, incidentally, within a few years of
the poem’s first publication). The main purpose,
however, is not to point the finger or poke fun at
friends and enemies (though there is undoubtedly
an element of this), but to examine the reality of
man’s human and spiritual nature in all its various
and complex manifestations.
Dante calls the three books of The Divine
Comedy ‘canzoni’. Each contains 33 chapters or
‘cantos’, except Infernowhich has an additional
introductory canto—making 100 cantos in all.
Each canto contains roughly 150 lines composed
according to a strict metrical and rhyme scheme.
The language of the poem is, importantly, not
Latin (as was customary for high art in Dante’s day)
but the language used by educated people in
14th century Florence. In addition Dante made
liberal use of archaic language and regional
dialects, all of which makes life very difficult for
the modern translator. But Dante’s purpose was to
make his work readable by the ‘ordinary’ reader—not merely clerics and academics—for despite its lofty theme and layers of symbolism, The Divine
Comedy is intended to speak to us directly
through the power of Dante’s imagery and
This work has not only endured, but has
exerted a powerful influence on Western thought
for almost seven centuries, especially perhaps the
Inferno, whose characters and images can be
found peppered throughout literature and art right
up to the present day. Tchaikowsky’s Francesca da
Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicci are borrowed
from it. Illustrations for Dante editions inspired
well known masterpieces by Botticelli, Blake and
Doré, while the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante
Gabriel Rossetti (his first name an obvious choice
for a father who was a Dante scholar and
reputedly able to recite the entire ‘Commedia’
from memory) returned time and again to Dante
for inspiration, notably in the enigmatic “Beata
Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels are full of
allusions to both Infernoand Purgatory—shades
walking slowly weighed down by leaden cloaks
(Inf. Canto XXIII), creatures swimming in mud
poking and whistling at one another(Inf. Canto
XXII), and indolent characters with little inclination
to struggle any further (Purg. Canto IV). Indeed,
the character Belacqua who Dante encounters
here is the primary source for all those later
Beckett characters who might say: “what’s the
good in climbing?”
One of the principal characters in The Divine
Comedy is Beatrice, whose significance in Dante’s
life needs to be understood. Dante first met and
fell in love with Beatrice Portinari when she was eight and he nine years old. He worshipped her
from afar until her early death at the age of
twenty four. (The full story of this strange ‘love
affair’ is told by Dante in his La Vita Nuova).
Beatrice then came to symbolise for Dante all that
is pure and worthy. In the ‘Commedia’ it is
Beatrice who sends the poet Virgil to guide Dante
through Hell and Purgatory. In Purgatory she
herself assumes responsibility for his journey of
discovery, and it is she who later reveals to him the
splendours of Paradise, leading him eventually to
“the love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”
Though less well known, less quoted and less
borrowed from than Infernoand Purgatory,
Paradise is quite as extraordinary a vision as the
two preceding books of the trilogy. Few authors
have dared to attempt a description of Heaven—how can one give concrete form to ‘purity’,
‘goodness’, ‘faith’ etc? These are the problems
facing Dante, and repeatedly he admits his inability
to contain his vision with mere words.
While in the worlds below he was able to revel
in the painstaking description of strange creatures
and fantastic landscapes, in Paradise his task is to
introduce us to the pure and just, whose abode is
clear air adorned only with singing stars and ever
more brilliant light. While in the abyss and on the
mountain of Purgatory, ascent involved
tremendous effort and was impeded by numerous
obstacles, in Paradise Dante and Beatrice simply
rise, ever faster, through space—passing from
sphere to sphere, until they reach ‘ the Empyrean’.
Here, within the vast white Celestial Rose,
encircled by nine rings of angels, sit the greatest of
all the saints—John, Peter, Francis, Benedict—along with the ancient fathers of Christianity—Adam and Moses—and the Virgin Mary herself.
Incredibly, perhaps, Beatrice accompanies Dante all
the way to this final sphere, and even takes her
place close to the feet of Eve and the Blessed
In place of the fantastic images, colourful
characterisation and political comment of the
earlier works, in Paradise, Dante fills his narrative
with theological argument and speculation. The
souls he encounters here, though they retain a
certain degree of venom to direct at the modern
guardians of the faith, are most concerned with
matters of the spirit.
While St Thomas Aquinas, in Canto XI, relates
the life and achievements of St Francis and decries
the deterioration of the order in recent times,
St Benedict himself addresses Dante in Canto XXII
with similar complaints about the Benedictines.
St Peter, St James and St John examine Dante
quite closely (in Cantos XXIV–XXVI) on his own
understanding of ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’; before
he is permitted to rise to the final heavenly sphere.
Constantly reassured by Beatrice, whose beauty
increases with every Canto, Dante appears to pass
every test. Unable, however, to find the words to
describe for us the intensity of the Divine Light, he
claims to be at a loss to convey his final vision,
although—not surprisingly, perhaps—the final
Canto rises, in that failure, to some of the most
inspired poetry of the entire trilogy:
“Like the geometer who tries so hard
to square the circle, but is unable,
think as he may, to find the principle,
so did I strive to understand this new
mystery; how could the image merge with
the circle, how could it fit and conform?
But my own wings could not take me so high.
Then a great flash of understanding struck,
cleaving my mind with the truth I desired.
In that instant power failed my fantasy,
but, as a wheel in perfect balance spins,
I could feel desire and will revolve with the
Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Notes by Roger Marsh
Dante, purified, rises with Beatrice from the
Earthly Paradise into the Sphere of Fire. He hears
the music of the spheres. Beatrice expounds the
principle of order governing the universe.
Apollo: the sun god, father of the Muses. One of
Mount Parnassus twin peaks (Cyrrha) was sacred
to him, and one to the Muses (Nisa).
Marsyas: a satyr, defeated by Apollo in a singing
contest punished by being flayed alive.
Peneian branches: laurel or bay, named for
Daphne daughter of Peneus, the river god.
no eagle : according to mediæval belief eagles
could stare unblinded at the sun.
Glaucus: a fisherman who, seeing his catch revive
when placed on a certain herb on the bank, ate
some himself and was transformed into a sea-god.
Dante and Beatrice rise to the Sphere of the Moon.
Beatrice explains the workings of the heavenly
bodies, and the reason for the moon’s markings.
Minerva: goddess of wisdom, with Apollo, god of
poetry and the Muses, all act as Dante’s guides.
the Bears: the constellations, Ursa Minor and
men of glory: the Argonauts, who journeyed to
Colchis to obtain the Golden Fleece from King
Ætis. He demanded Jason plough a field with two
fire-breathing oxen and sow it with dragon’s teeth,
from which armed men grew.
Cain: was banished to the moon for the murder of
Abel in mediæval Italian fable. The bundle of
thorns he carries are further punishment.
shared one virtue: varying degrees of brilliance
are not just from relative intensity, they derive from
differences in heavenly bodies’ virtue or specific
nature. Since the universe displays the influence of
the heavenly bodies in the various species and
abilities of living forms, there cannot be just one
formal principle: scholastic teaching distinguishes
between the material principle i.e., first matter,
which is the same in all; and the formal
(constitutive) principle that determines species and
The First Sphere; the Moon. Dante sees the pale
faces of the lowest class of the blessed; the
Inconstant, who failed to fulfil their holy vows. He
converses with Piccarda Donati who recounts her
story and that of the Empress Constance.
love the pool: Narcissus fell in love with his own
reflection thinking it real. Dante mistakes what is
real for reflection.
the slowest sphere: The moon, innermost of the
nine concentric spheres, furthest from the
Empyrean is the slowest sphere. Speed like
brilliance is proportional to proximity to God.
Waxing and waning makes the moon a symbol of
desire a higher station: the blessed appear to
Dante in the sphere that best reflects their earthly
tendencies, but have a proper place in the
Empyrean where they experience as much bliss as
they are capable of without wishing for more.
Piccarda Donati: cousin of Dante’s wife Gemma,
sister of Corso Donati, his political enemy. Corso
forced Piccarda to leave her convent and marry
Rossellino della Tossa of Florence in a political
higher in heaven: Saint Clare of Assisi, founder
of the order Poor Clares, disciple of St Francis.
this other radiance: Empress Constance d.1198
heiress to the crowns of Sicily and Naples and
mother of Frederick II. Legend suggests she was
forced to leave her convent to marry Henry VI, son
of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
blasts of Swabia: the three princes mentioned
Piccarda’s story prompts two equally strong doubts
in Dante—about free will, and why Divine Justice
lessened the merit of the souls in this sphere. He
wonders if it is possible to make recompense for
Nebuchadnezzar: ordered his sages executed for
failing to interpret a dream. Daniel appeased his
wrath by explaining the dream.
Plato: taught in the Timaeus that souls come preformed
from their various stars and return to them
at the body’s death, a doctrine that denies free
will, and the possibility of souls returning to the
Creator. Dante assumes that Piccarda and the
Inconstant have been assigned to the moon
eternally, hence his confusion.
Tobit: a blind man cured by Raphael, the third
Lawrence: deacon of the early Roman church, grilled to death in 258 AD. Reported as saying to
his torturer “Thou hast roasted the one side,
tyrant, now turn the other and eat.”
Mucius: Mucius Scaevola, having failed in his
attempt to kill Lars Porsena during the latter’s
siege of ancient Rome, placed his right hand in the
fire kindled to execute him and held it there
without flinching. Mucius courage earned Rome
and himself a reprieve.
Alcmaeon: murdered his mother at the instigation
of his father.
Beatrice explains the nature of vows, and touches
on free will. They rise to the Sphere of Mercury.
creatures created intelligent: angels and
evil greed: of certain religious orders offering
dispensations for money.
the Jew: whose law on sacrifice remains
veiled from mortals: Mercury is usually obscured
by the sun, and seldom visible from earth.
In the Sphere of Mercury, Justinian describes the
spread of Rome’s eagle standard through the
ancient world and into mediæval times.
Constantine: moved the eagle (the seat of Roman
authority) east to Constantinople in 324 AD,
counter to the course of the sun, and reversing the
journey from Troy made by Rome’s founder
Aeneas (who wed Lavinia).
Justinian: sixth century Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, renowned for his codification of
Roman law—his ‘high task’.
Agapetus: pope from 535–536. Legend
(erroneously) suggests he converted Justinian from
Belisarius: a general under Justinian, to whom
was entrusted the reconquest of Italy from the
Pallas: son of Evander, king of Latium, killed in
battle helping Aeneas to victory. When Aeneas
married Lavinia, Pallas’ sister, he acquired rights to
the kingdom of Latium, present site of Rome.
three contended with three: the Horatii, three
Roman champions, fought the Curiatii, three
champions of Alba Longa.
Sabine’s rape: a local raid carried out by Romulus
to acquire wives.
Lucretia’s grief: Sextus son of the seventh king of
Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, violated Lucretia
daughter of a patrician family, who killed herself.
The resulting scandal led to the foundation of the
Arab pride: reference to the Carthaginians.
those hills: above Florence where Catiline, the
conspirator, took refuge and was defeated.
Rubicon: Caesar crossed the river Rubicon in
default of orders from the Senate and started the
Its next chief: Augustus; Caesar’s nephew and
successor, 44 BC defeated two of his assassins
Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Marc Antony at
Modena, 43 BC and Marc Antony’s brother at
Perugia. Janus: god of beginnings, porter of heaven. The
temple doors were only closed in peace time.
the third Caesar: Tiberius, in whose reign Christ
was crucified 34 AD, by which event Adam’s sin
Titus: Emperor from AD 79–81, destroyer of
Jerusalem, and thus avenger of the death of
Lombard: Germanic invaders of Italy defeated by
Charlemagne 774 AD.
In the Sphere of Mercury, Beatrice answers Dante’s
unspoken question arising from Justinian’s
discourse, further questions about redemption,
and the difference between primary and
man not born of woman: Adam
just vengeance…avenged: the crucifixion was
just retribution for original sin, but the sinlessness
of the person who suffered made it unjust.
Retribution was exacted by Titus in the destruction
fire, water, air, earth: the four elements of
matter of which all substances are composed.
Beatrice distinguishes between them, the fruits of
secondary creation, and the angels and the
spheres, fruits of direct creation.
Dante has been ascending to the planet Venus
without realising. He meets the Amorous who
gave way to immoderate passion in earthly lives,
but did not turn from God.
Dido: conceived a fatal passion for Aeneas, inspired deceitfully by Cupid disguised as Ascanius,
My life among men: the speaker is Charles
Martel, d.1295, son of Charles II of Anjou and a
friend of Dante.
Xerxes…Solon…Melchizedek: archetypes of
war leader, lawgiver and spiritual leader
lost his own son: Daedalus, father of Icarus
Still in the Sphere of Venus, Cunizza da Romano
and Folco of Marseilles talk to Dante.
Cunizza da Romano: d.1279) had four husbands
and two lovers during her life. She lived to the
great age of 80, and was well known in Florence
for her acts of compassion.
fire brand: Cunizza was the sister of the tyrant
Azzolino da Romano placed by Dante in Circle VII
of Inferno, the river of boiling blood.
bright and precious jewel: refers to Folco
(Folquet) of Marseilles, a troubadour poet who
became bishop of Marseilles 1205–1231. A leader
of the harsh crusade against the Albigensian
Belus’ daughter: Dido, whose passion for Aeneas
led her to betray her vow of constancy to Sicheus
her dead husband, and to wrong Creusa, Aeneas’
wife, who had perished in the fall of Troy.
the girl of Rhodopè: Phyllis daughter of the King
of Thrace, believing she was abandoned by Prince
Demophöon, hanged herself.
Hercules: fell into a mad passion for Iole, and
after killing her father, Eutryus, King of Oechalia,
accursed flower of gold: Florentine currency had
a lily stamped on one side.
decretals: texts of canon law
They enter the fourth Sphere, of the Sun. St
Thomas Aquinas identifies the garland of twelve
souls of philosophers and theologians who have
guided the church.
Because the ray of grace: Thomas Aquinas
d.1274, ‘the Angelic Doctor’ most famous for the
Summa Theologica, an exposition of church
Albert of Cologne: d.1280 Dominican and
teacher of Aquinas. Known as the Universal
Doctor because of his vast learning especially on
Gratian: 12th century Benedictine monk,
originator of the science of canon law.
Peter: Lombard, d.1160, known as the Master of
the Sentences, through his collection of the
sayings of the church fathers.
the fifth: King Solomon, the fairest light, who
asked God for an understanding heart and was
given unique wisdom.
that candle: Dionysius the Areopagite, an
Athenian converted by St Paul credited with
having written the Celestial Hierarchy, a treatise
explaining the angelic orders.
Litle light: probably Orosius, a 5th century
Spanish priest whose Seven Books of History
against the Pagans was intended to show the
world had not deteriorated since Christianity, contrary to pagan belief.
the eighth: Boethius (St Severinus) author of the
Consolation of Philosophy, d.524.
Isidore, Bede and Richard: St Isidore of Seville,
d.636, influential writer of the Middle Ages. The
Venerable Bede d.735, an English monk, known as
the father of history, author of the Ecclesiastical
History of the English Nation. Richard of St Victor,
d.1173, known as the great Contemplator, a
mystic and scholastic philosopher.
Siger: of Brabant d.1284, a distinguished Averroist
philosopher (after the Muslim thinker Averrhoes)
who taught at the University of Paris, in the Rue
de Fouarre. (‘Straw Street’—now called Rue
Within the Sphere of the Sun, Aquinas resumes his
discourse, relates the story of Francis of Assisi and
bewails the degeneration of the Dominican order.
Aphorisms: a medical textbook attributed to
seraphic in his love: the Seraphim are the
highest order of angels, symbolic of the greatest
love for God, Francis is characterised by his
in his wisdom Dominic’s learning and doctrinal
clarity associates him with the Cherubim the
second order of angels, acknowledged as the
Assisi: or Ascesi in Dante’s time, also means ‘I
have risen.’ Francis is described here as a sun, and
Orient is a more appropriate name for a rising sun.
Amyclas: a fisherman so poor he had nothing to
fear from any man, so lay at his ease on a bed of
seaweed before Caesar himself.
Bernard di Quintavalle: Francis’ first disciple.
Egidius and Sylvester were other disciples.
The damage to the plant: the erosion of the
In the Sphere of the Sun a second circle of souls
forms around the first. St Bonaventure tells the
story of St Dominic and comments on the
decadence of the Franciscans, his own order.
her handmaid: Iris, goddess of the rainbow and
Juno’s messenger. Twin rainbows occurred when
Juno called Iris to her.
wandering nymph: Echo who wasted away to a
voice for love of Narcissus.
one of those new splendours: St Bonaventure,
a scholar saint and theologian, given the title
Doctor Seraphicus. As a child he was miraculously
healed by St Francis, hence his name buona
ventura—good fortune. Died 1274, canonised
1482 by Sixtus IV.
his mother: dreamt that she gave birth to a black
and white dog. The Latin Domini canes; translates
as the ‘hounds of the Lord’; black and white are
the orders colours.
Dominicus: the possessive form of Domine (the
Lord). Dominic was an austere man with an
undeviating faith in pure doctrine. He took part in
the Albigensian crusade, preaching (and bearing
arms) against the heretics, who denied the
resurrection. Founded his order in 1215, d.1221,
Illuminato and Augustine: early followers of
Hugh of St Victor: 12th century mystic.
Peter of Spain: author of summary of logical
principles, later John XXI; d.1277 when a ceiling
collapsed on him in the papal palace.
Peter Mangiadore: author of a famous work of
Bible history, d.1164.
Nathan: Hebrew prophet who rebuked King
David for his sins.
Anselm: 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury.
Chyrysostom: ‘golden mouth’ in Greek, 4thcentury
Patriach of Constantinople noted for his
Donatus: 4th century Roman rhetorician.
Rabanus: d.856, scholar, poet, Archbishop of
Joachim: of Fiore, d.1202, preacher and
St Thomas Aquinas explains the nature of perfect
creation in Adam and Christ, and Solomon’s gift of
Wisdom. He warns against making hasty
Minos’ daughter: Ariadne, whose wedding
wreath at her death was turned into the
constellation Corona Borealis.
that great soul: Solomon.
no mortal soul rose to be his equal: though
Adam and Christ-as-man were wiser than
Solomon they were direct creations of God, apart
from mortal creation; Solomon was a secondary
creation arising from Nature.
In the Sphere of the Sun Solomon expounds the
doctrine of the resurrected body. Dante gradually
becomes aware of a third circle of souls, Warriors
for God, then realises he and Beatrice have
ascended to the Fifth Sphere, of Mars.
One and Two and Three: the Trinity
In the Sphere of Mars the soul of Cacciaguida,
Dante’s ancestor, tells his story and extols the
virtues of ancient Florence.
Anchises: Aeneas’ father, who greeted him with
five and six from one: all numbers derive from
one, as all knowledge derives from the Primal
Sardanapalus: the last Assyrian king, a byword
for wantonness and debauchery.
Bellincone Berti…dei Nerli del Vacchio: ancient
honourable Florentine families.
Cacciaguida speaks of his family’s history,
contrasting early Florence with Dante’s corrupt
St John: Florence’s patron saint.
this fire: Mars; the lions paw; Leo. By this
calculation, Cacciaguida was born around 1090.
Mars and the Baptist; the statue of Mars on the
Ponte Vecchio and the Baptistry of St John marked
the limits of Cacciaguida’s Florence.
Campi, Certaldo, and Figghine: small towns
near Florence whose inhabitants polluted pure
the lily: the white lily was the ancient standard of
Florence. The Guelphs made it bloody/red. Flying a
captured standard upside down mocked the
Cacciaguida prophesies Dante’s banishment from
Florence and entrusts him with writing the
Clymene: mother of Phaëton. Hearing that Apollo
was not his father, as he had believed, Clymene
urged her son to ask Apollo himself. To reassure
him, Apollo let Phaëton drive his sun chariot, with
contingency…necessity: divine foreknowledge
of contingent things does not imply necessity
because man has free will.
Hippolytus: rejected the advances of his
stepmother Phaedra who then accused him of
wanting what she had been denied. Theseus,
Hippolytus’ father, banished his innocent son.
great Lombard: Bartolemmeo della Scala of
Verona. An eagle perched on a golden ladder
formed part of the family arms.
the seal of this star: Mars. Thus Can Grande
della Scala to whom this refers, would achieve
great things in the martial arts.
Gascon: Clement V invited Emperor Henry VII to
Rome, but later threatened to excommunicate
Cacciaguida identifies the warrior saints in the
cross of light. Beatrice and Dante rise to the sixth
sphere, the Sphere of Jupiter, where the souls of
just monarchs and governors spell out messages,
and delineate the profile of an eagle.
Joshua: led the Israelites into the Promised land.
Maccabeus: Judas Maccabeus died freeing Israel
from Syrian tyranny.
Charlemagne and Roland: Charlemagne, d.814,
king of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor. With
Roland his nephew and greatest warrior, he
defended Christendom against the Saracens.
William and Renouard: William, Count of
Orange d.812, whose battles against the Saracens
in Southern France are retold in Old French epics.
Renouard a giant of Saracen birth, converted and
served with William.
Duke Godfroy: Duc de Bouillon leader of the First
Robert Guiscard: d.1085, (the Weasel), took
Apulia and Calabria from the Saracens.
martyrdom by a dance: John the Baptist. Dante
refers to those set on the image of the patron
saint of Florence, stamped on the florin. In other
words, the Papacy cares only for money.
the Fisherman: St Peter.
In the Sphere of Jupiter, souls of the just and
temperate rulers forming the symbolic eagle
discourse on divine justice, and its inscrutability,
and the fate of the good heathen. They denounce
Christendom’s present rulers.
another Kingdom: the angelic order of Thrones,
which guides the Sphere of Saturn.
first proud being: Lucifer the fallen angel
Albert: of Austria, laid waste to Bohemia in 1314.
Seine: the grief inflicted on France by Philip the
Fair when he debased the currency to pay for his
Flanders campaigns. He was killed by a fall from
his horse hunting wild boar.
cripple of Jerusalem: Charles II, ‘the Lame’ of
Naples, titular King of Jerusalem.
M: The Roman symbol for 1000.
The souls of the imperial eagle identify those that
make up its eye, two Jews, two pagans and two
Christians, champions of justice on earth.
singer of the Holy Spirit: King David, the
He who consoled the widow: the Emperor
Trajan. A legend existed that Pope Gregory so
prayed for Trajan, a pagan when he died, that he
was brought from Limbo back to life, and baptised
by Gregory to salvation.
delayed his death: Hezekiah, King of Judah,
informed of his impending death, prayed God to
remember his service and was granted another
went to Greece: Constantine ceded the Western
Empire to the Church (the Shepherd) and moved
the seat of Empire and its laws to Byzantium.
William: King of Naples and Sicily d.1189, a just
ruler. Naples passed to Charles the Lame and Sicily
to Frederick II, see above.
Ripheus: the one just man among the Trojans,
and proof of how inscrutable is Divine Justice.
quiddity: the ‘thingness’ of something—its
In the Sphere of Saturn, the seventh Heaven, a
golden ladder appears, on which the souls of the
contemplatives gather. St Peter Damian speaks to
Semele: was reduced to ashes when Juno, jealous
of her love for Jupiter, persuaded the girl to beg
Jupiter to show her his full splendour.
that dear leader: Saturn, father of Jupiter, ruled
as King of Crete in the Golden Age, before malice.
Peter Damian: d.1072, rose from humble
beginnings to be Cardinal-bishop of Ostia, and
was a zealous reformer of Church discipline. He
signed some of his later work Peter the Sinner.
The hat: his cardinal’s hat.
Cephas: rock in Hebrew, i.e., St Peter.
Dante is addressed by St Benedict on his order’s
decline, then ascends the ladder to the Eighth
Heaven, the Sphere of Fixed Stars.
largest and most luminous: St Benedict, d.543,
founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino on
the site of an active pagan sanctuary. He drew up
the general rule of worship, labour, and service
which have since regulated western monasticism.
impious cult: of Apollo
Maccarius: the Younger, d.404. St Benedict’s
counterpart, founder of Eastern monasticism.
Romoaldus: d.1027, founded the Order of Camaldoli, reformed Benedictines, who
Latona’s daughter: Diana, the Moon.
your son, Hyperion: Hyperion was father of
Helios, the Sun.
Diöne and Maia: Diöne was the mother of
Venus. Maia, Mercury’s mother, was one of the
seven Pleiade sisters.
tempering Jupiter: between Mars his hot son,
and Saturn his cold father.
The Eighth Heaven of the Fixed Stars. Dante
witnesses the spectacle of the Church Triumphant;
Christ and the Virgin, with the souls of the
Trivia: another name for Diana; the moon.
Substance Radiant: the figure of Christ.
Polyhymnia: the Muse of sacred songs.
the Rose: the Virgin Mary.
the lilies: souls that share in Triumph.
I am angelic love: Gabriel, speaking on behalf of
The Eighth Heaven of the Fixed Stars, St Peter
examines Dante on Faith.
Still in the Eighth Heaven, St James examines
Dante on Hope.
Another radiance: St James, brother of St John,
killed by order of Herod Agrippa. At death his
body was mysteriously transported to Galicia,
Spain, where he once preached, to become the
centre of pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela.
the breast of the Pelican: At the last supper
John Christ’s favourite disciple, reclined on his
breast. In mediæval legend the pelican succoured
its young with blood pecked from its breast.
by looking is blinded: Dante is trying to resolve
the mediæval puzzle of whether St John had been
translated to heaven in body and soul at his death.
St John examines Dante on love. Adam answers
Dante’s questions on his life in Eden and after.
Ananias: cured St Paul’s blindness on the
a fourth light: Adam.
Nimrod’s people: built the Tower of Babel.
Hell’s agonies: According to Dante (following
Eusebius), Adam was created in 5198 BC, died
aged 930, and was released from Hell by Christ in
YAH: from the initial letter of Jehovah.
El: from Elohim the other Hebrew name for God.
On that peak: Adam spent only half a day in
St Peter denounces papal corruption. Dante and
Beatrice ascend to the ninth and highest of the
material heavens, the Primum Mobile.
four torches: Peter, James, John, Adam. Peter
The man who now usurps my throne: Boniface
VIII, the reigning pope in 1300.
Linus and Cletus: Peter’s two martyred
Sixtus, Pius, Calixtus and Urban: Bishops of
Rome who died for their faith.
Europa: was carried from Phoenicia by Jupiter.
nest of Leda: the constellation of Gemini, named
for Leda’s twin sons, Castor and Pollux, born from
eggs sired by Jupiter in the form of a swan.
In the Primum Mobile, Dante has a vision of God
as a point of light ringed by Nine glowing spheres
– the angel hierarchy which Beatrice explains.
a point: the point of light is God, representing the
centre of all Heaven.
Boreas: the North wind, blowing from his left
cheek, produces northeast winds, storms and
cloudy skies. His gentler right cheek, produces il
maestrale the cloud clearing northwesterly.
Blowing straight produces a north wind of bitter
Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones: the angelic
orders are grouped into three sets of trinities, and
these comprise the first. Seraphim are
distinguished by fervour of love, while cherubim
excel in knowledge. Thrones are God’s aspect as
Aries: rises with the night in autumn and with the
sun in spring.
Dominions, Virtues, Powers: the second Trinity.
God’s majesty is manifested through Dominions.
Virtues work miracles on earth and are bestowers
of grace and valour. Powers work towards keeping
order and preside over demons.
Principalities, Archangels, Angels: Principalites
are protectors of religion and watch over leaders
of people. Archangels and angels are the lowest in
the hierarchy and make propition to God for the
sins of the ignorant and the righteous.
Beatrice discusses the creation of angels and the
fall of Lucifer, condemning foolish teachings and
preaching on the subject.
Latona’s children: Apollo and Diana.
Eternal love: God’s motive for all creation was
that things created might participate in his
a party of angels fell: Lucifer and the rebellious
the bird that nests: in mediæval superstition the
devil often took the shape of a rook crow or
Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Empyrean, the
highest sphere and the abode of God. Dante
describes it as a rose.
handmaid of the sun: Aurora, the dawn.
noble Henry: Henry VII of Luxembourg Emperor
of the Holy Roman Empire, through whom Dante
hoped Italy would be cured of its troubles and
Christendom returned to order.
who travels on Henry’s path: Clement V, pope
1305–14, at first supported Henry, then changed
sides to support the French monarch Philip IV.
Dante predicts his death and his fate among the
simoniac popes, in Inferno Alagni, Boniface VIII, in Inferno.
Dante sees the angelic host and the elect in the
Empyrean. Beatrice takes her place, leaving Dante
in the care of St Bernard of Clairvaux. Dante looks
upon the Virgin.
Her faithful Bernard: St Bernard of Clairvaux,
d.1153. The most famous abbott of the
Benedictine Order. His writings are characterised
by an ardent devotion to the Virgin Mary.
oriflamme: the standard supposedly given to the
kings of France by the angel Gabriel, a flame on a
St Bernard identifies the elect born before and
after Christ, seated in the Rose shaped court of
the Empyrean. The presence of unbaptised
children is explained.
Mary: mother of God, sits in the top most tier of
the rose Eve, mother of man directly below and
Rachel, symbolising the Contemplative Life below
her. On her right, Beatrice, who lights the
intellect to truth.
Sarah, Rebecca and Judith: Sarah, Abraham’s
wife, mother of Isaac. Rebecca, wife of Isaac bore
Esau and Jacob. Judith, a biblical heroine
murdered Holofernes, an Assyrian general, while
he slept, saving the Jews.
great grandmother: Ruth,
that singer; David, whose sin was sending Uriah
to die in battle so he might marry Uriah’s wife,
great John: the Baptist.
childlike treble voices: the lower half of the
rose, contains the souls of those who died before
they grew to reason and faith, and won salvation
through the prayers of others.
two roots: Adam, father of mankind, St Peter,
father of the church.
The great leader: Moses to the left of Adam.
Anna: mother of the Virgin.
St Bernard offers a prayer to the Virgin, and
Dante is permitted the Direct Vision of God.
Sybil’s oracle of leaves: the Cumean Sybil wrote
her oracles on leaves that were scattered by the
Neptune: looked up to see the underside of the
Argo, the first ship, on its journey to Colchis for
the Golden Fleece. After twenty five centuries
Neptune’s surprise is more easily recalled than
Dante’s moment of vision an instant after he
…this poem from the earth and air
This medieval miracle of song.
- HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
About the translation
Had Dante guessed at the attention posterity
would give his vision, he would no doubt have set
aside a special place in the lowest part of hell for
translators. Some of the most famous names in
literature have attempted a Divine Comedy for
their time, and with the most famously awful
results. His terze rima, or three-fold rhyme scheme,
has tied numerous poets in English into such knots
that on occasions Dante’s rhyme scheme is all that
remains of the original.
But as Virgil says to the Poet, ‘ Let us not talk of
them, but with a glance pass on.’ This translation
was made with the listener in mind. Here, couplets
and terza rima have been rejected for the clarity of
blank verse. And while the purist’s lip may curl,
Dante’s sometimes convoluted sentence structure
has been occasionally straightened for ease of
It may be assumed that for many of Dante’s
contemporaries, The Divine Comedy will have
been an aural experience. It is this pleasure of his
epic as a story rather than as a classic text that this
translation seeks to recapture. Conjured by the
listener’s own imagination 600 years on, Hell has
lost none of its terror nor Paradise its ecstasy.
Note by Benedict Flynn
In addition to translating The Divine Comedy,
Benedict Flynn has re-told the myths of The Tale
of Troy, The Adventures of Odysseus, King Arthur and Robin Hood for younger listeners and
edited the anthology Poems of the Orient—all
for Naxos AudioBooks.
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Music of the Troubadours
Salve Festa Dies
In Dulci Jubilo, Alberto Turco
MACHAUT La Messe de Nostre Dame
Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly
In Passione et mortis Domini
Nova Schola Gregoriana, Alberto Turco
Adorate Deum / Gregorian Chant
Nova Schola Gregoriana, Alberto Turco
VON BINGEN Heavenly Revelations
Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly
Music programming by Roger Marsh and Nicolas Soames