Monday, February 13, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #24

Last week got away from me, sorry faithful readers! I kept meaning and meaning to get a POTW up here and it never happened. To make up for it this week, I'm offering something slightly unusual -- not a poem per se, but a fragment of a poem. A poem that is one of the greatest works of literature ever penned, one of my favorite works of fiction of any genre -- the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.

Recently I took the final (and least famous, for some strange reason) volume of the Comedy, Paradiso, off of my shelf, and was thumbing through it, trying to recall the experience of reading it. I came across a short passage that I had marked off, and as I re-read it, I realized that it makes for a perfect example of why I think this work is so worth reading: it is chock full of interesting interludes and passages in which Dante (through the mouths of his characters, who are very often historical figures) muses about human nature and man's relationship to either himself, the world, or God Himself. Very often, they make for valuable spiritual reading, in that they remind us of truths greater than ourselves, and orient us within the great schema of Providence.

In this passage, Dante is being instructed by Saint Thomas Aquinas within the Fourth Sphere of Heaven, who has just finished explaining "why none ever rose to equal Solomon's wisdom." At the conclusion of this instruction, he issues a warning against hasty judgment (it's probably worth noting that in this discussion he has just mentioned some of the Church's most infamous heretics). It makes for powerful and even timely reading, "for those with ears to hear."


Paradiso, Canto XIII, lines 117-123; 130-143
(John Ciardi translation)

For he is a fool, and low among his kind,
who answers yea or nay without reflection,
nor does it matter on which road he runs blind.

Opinions too soon formed often deflect
man's thinking from the truth into gross error,
in which his pride then binds his intellect.

It is worse than vain for men to leave the shore
and fish for truth unless they know the art:
for they return worse off than they were before.

Men should not be too smug in their own reason;
only a foolish man will walk his field
and count his ears too early in the season.

for I have seen a briar through winter's snows
rattle its tough and menacing bare stems,
and then, in season, open its pale rose;

and I have seen a ship cross all the main,
true to its course and swift, and then go down
just as it entered its home port again.

Let Tom and Jane* not think, because they see
one man is picking pockets and another
is offering all his goods to charity,

that they can judge their neighbors with God's eyes:
for the pious man may fall, and the thief may rise.

*from the translator's notes: "Tom and Jane" -- anyone in general. (Dante says: "donna Berta or ser Martino.")

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

No matter what century it was or how accomplished the poet in question, ANYONE who has the audacity to think that they can write from the point of view of no less than ST. THOMAS AQUINAS giving counsel has got some serious literary cojones. That is one of the things that is great about this passage Duke selected this time around. It took a lot of vision and guts for Dante to write from the point of view of historical figures, many of them giants like this one. And he seems to pull it off well. I have never read The Divine Comedy; it's on my list of great books that I obviously need to get to at some stage in life. But this segment from Paradiso was instructive and interesting. It seems very common sensical (why would you fish without 'knowing the art' first?) but the way Dante presents the lesson and the fictional context in which it is being told seems to be unparalleled in literature. Anyway, I usually feel like a chump when I try to comment on poetry, and today is no exception, but I can say that I enjoyed this selection a lot. I like the way Duke mixes it up - you never know what country or what century you will end up in next.