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NA431812 - DANTE: Divine Comedy (The) - 3. Paradise (Unabridged)

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 narrative skill.

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 Beatrix”.

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 Virgin.

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


Canto I

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.

Canto II

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 Major
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 virtue.
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 potential.

Canto III

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 inconstancy.
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 alliance. 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 above.

Canto IV

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 Broken Vows.

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 archangel.
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.

Canto V

Beatrice explains the nature of vows, and touches on free will. They rise to the Sphere of Mercury.

creatures created intelligent: angels and mankind.
evil greed: of certain religious orders offering dispensations for money.
the Jew: whose law on sacrifice remains uncorrupted.
veiled from mortals: Mercury is usually obscured by the sun, and seldom visible from earth.

Canto VI

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 heresy.
Belisarius: a general under Justinian, to whom was entrusted the reconquest of Italy from the Goth.
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 Republic.
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 Civil Wars.
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 was expiated.
Titus: Emperor from AD 79–81, destroyer of Jerusalem, and thus avenger of the death of Christ.
Lombard: Germanic invaders of Italy defeated by Charlemagne 774 AD.

Canto VII

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 secondary creation.

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 of Jerusalem.
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.

Canto VIII

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, Aeneas’ son.
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 respectively.
lost his own son: Daedalus, father of Icarus

Canto IX

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 heretics.
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, abducted her.
accursed flower of gold: Florentine currency had a lily stamped on one side.
decretals: texts of canon law

Canto X

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 teachings.
Albert of Cologne: d.1280 Dominican and teacher of Aquinas. Known as the Universal Doctor because of his vast learning especially on Aristotle.
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 Dante).

Canto XI

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 Hippocrates.
seraphic in his love: the Seraphim are the highest order of angels, symbolic of the greatest love for God, Francis is characterised by his seraphic love.
in his wisdom Dominic’s learning and doctrinal clarity associates him with the Cherubim the second order of angels, acknowledged as the wisest.
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 order.

Canto XII

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, canonised 1234.
Illuminato and Augustine: early followers of St Francis.
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 preaching.
Donatus: 4th century Roman rhetorician.
Rabanus: d.856, scholar, poet, Archbishop of Mainz.
Joachim: of Fiore, d.1202, preacher and eschatological mystic.

Canto XIII

St Thomas Aquinas explains the nature of perfect creation in Adam and Christ, and Solomon’s gift of Wisdom. He warns against making hasty judgements.

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.

Canto XIV

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

Canto XV

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 great joy.
five and six from one: all numbers derive from one, as all knowledge derives from the Primal Thought.
Sardanapalus: the last Assyrian king, a byword for wantonness and debauchery.
Bellincone Berti…dei Nerli del Vacchio: ancient honourable Florentine families.

Canto XVI

Cacciaguida speaks of his family’s history, contrasting early Florence with Dante’s corrupt city.

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 Florentine blood.
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 vanquished.

Canto XVII

Cacciaguida prophesies Dante’s banishment from Florence and entrusts him with writing the Comedy.

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 fatal consequences.
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 him.


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 Crusade.
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.

Canto XIX

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.

Canto XX

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 psalmist.
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 fifteen years.
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 essence.

Canto XXI

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 Dante.

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.

Canto XXII

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 emphasised contemplation.
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 redeemed.

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 all angels.

Canto XXIV

The Eighth Heaven of the Fixed Stars, St Peter examines Dante on Faith.

Canto XXV 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.

Canto XXVI

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 Damascus road.
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 34 AD.
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 Eden.


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 glows red.
The man who now usurps my throne: Boniface VIII, the reigning pope in 1300.
Linus and Cletus: Peter’s two martyred successors.
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 winter cold.
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 Supreme Justice.
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.

Canto XXIX

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 goodness.
a party of angels fell: Lucifer and the rebellious angels.
the bird that nests: in mediæval superstition the devil often took the shape of a rook crow or woodpecker.

Canto XXX

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.

Canto XXXI

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 golden background.


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, Bathsheba.
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 wind.
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 had it.

…this poem from the earth and air
This medieval miracle of song.


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 comprehension.

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

Ensemble Unicorn

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

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