Fioretti di Don Giacomo Foley per i nostri bravi amici d’Italia

Fioretti di Don Giacomo Foley per i nostri bravi amici d’Italia

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Dante Aleghieri

Fioretti di Don Giacomo Foley

per i nostri bravi Amici d’Italia.

Paradiso

di Dante Alighieri

Canto Primo 1-12

 

La gloria di colui che tutto move                 a

per l’universo penetra e risplende             b

in una parte più e meno altrove.                 a

Nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende        b

fu’io, e vidi cose che ridire                           c

nè sa nè può chi di là su discende;              b

perche appressando se al suo desire,        c

nostro intelletto si profonda tanto,             d

che dietro la memoria non può ire.             c

Veramente quant’io del regno santo          d

ne la mia mente potei far tesoro,                e

sarà ora matera del mio canto.                   d

The glory the one who sets all things in motion

throughout the universe penetrates and shines forth

in one part more and less in another.

In heaven which enjoys more of his light

I have set foot, and witnessed things which to describe

he is incapable who then comes down from on high;

because, as it draws near to its heart’s desire,

our intellect penetrates so deeply,

that our memory is unable to follow.

However, as much of the holy kingdom

as I am able to treasure in my mind,

will be the subject of my song.

 

It is a fact of life that many of us who have made a brave start to reading Dante’s Divina Commedia have run out of steam by the end of the first Canto of the Inferno, if not long before. I have therefore decided to abandon hell and purgatory and head straight for Paradise with Dante as my guide.

Dante’s Poetic Techniques

A few words on the poetic devices of the poem are called for. The first and most obvious of these is his use of ‘Terza Rima’. I will be forgiven if I go back as far as the 4th century BC to do so. I have it on good authority that Pythagoras (570-495 BC) was not only good at maths, he also loved music and is credited with the surprising claim that ‘numbers are the music of the spheres’. When he had sorted out the square on the hypotenuse to his satisfaction he started work on the constellations in the sky and came to the conclusion that the movement of the heavenly spheres produced a kind of cosmic music to which they kept time and that we mortals are tuned into the same wavelength. This, in turn, results in harmony throughout creation.

Pythagoras was not alone in this line of thought. We should not be put off the philosopher Plato because he was so called because he looked like a plate. He pressed the claim for music into the human spirit, to establish an inner harmony that kept a man sane and at peace with himself.

In time, another more obscure Greek philosopher, Damon (5th Century BC), saw a market for music among politicians and the wider public. With the right kind of music, whole societies could be calmed into submission or roused into rebellion whether it be by a Beethoven Symphony in Vienna or a Fiddlers’ Rally in Pittenweem. The bottom line for some Greek philosophers was the conviction that all music on earth was plugged into the rhythm and sound of the music of the heavens.

Early Christianity took to this like a bow to a Stradivarius. Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-215 AD), inspired by the Psalms, aspired to sing a new song to the Lord and did so because he believed that Jesus, the Word made flesh, was that new song that rose high above the limitations of earth to share the anthems of heaven. The Word made flesh restored the harmony of heaven to the discord on earth.

This brings us full circle back to Dante and his Terza Rima. Three is one of the great mystical numbers. For the Christian, it resonates with the Blessed Trinity. Shakespeare is familiar with this thought when he records that ‘they say there is divinity in odd numbers’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 5 Scene 1).

Among these odd numbers then, the Blessed Trinity holds pride of place. The number three plays such an important part throughout the structure of the entire Divine Comedy, right down to the choice of what is known in the trade as Terza Rima.

This poetic form was invented by Dante and allowed him to set out his epic poem in verses composed of three lines each. However, the analogy with the Trinity does not end there. As the verses follow one another, they enjoy a remarkable unity and diversity comparable to the unity and diversity of one divine nature and three distinct persons in the Blessed Trinity, unlikely as this may seem. They are completely distinct from one another and at the same time bound inseparably together by the adroit use of rhyme.

Line 1 ends with ‘move’                   a

Line 2 ends with ‘risplende’            b

Line 3 ends with ‘altrove’                a

 

Line 4 ends with ‘prende’                b

Line 5 ends with ‘redire’                  c

Line 6 ends with ‘discende’             b

And so each Canto batters along, like a runaway train, at some 140 pentemetres an hour till it hits the buffers that bring it to a halt.

aba/bcb/cdc/ded/efe/fgf/ghg/hih/iji/jkj/klk/lml/mnm/non/opo/pqp/qrq/rsr.

Philosophy at the service of theology

With the first line of Paradise, Dante embraces both Christian theology and pagan philosophy and really never loses sight of them in the course of the thousands of lines that follow. As a Christian theologian he gives pride of place to ‘glory’. In any language the term ‘glory’ is associated with divine life especially as manifested in a created universe. Any concordance to the Old or New Testaments will provide ample witness to that claim:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 18.2).

Jesus manifested his glory (John 2.11).

However, the first line associates ‘glory’ with him who ‘moves all things’ and this plunges us again into the world of philosophy. This is an expression that can be readily traced to the attempts of ancient philosophers to come to terms with the world in which they lived. There were those who, when faced with a universe that was always on the move with the ground shifting under their feet, postulated the need for something that did not itself move but set everything else in motion. This was called the Primum Immobile (The first thing that doesn’t move) and was championed by Aristotle (BC 384-222). Not every philosopher subscribed to this principle. By contrast, Heraclytus (BC 535-475), had insisted that nothing ever stood still long enough to be caught napping.   Indeed, had there been Glasgow corporation buses in his day, he would have claimed that any bus that passed a busy bus stop was, at any given moment, arriving and departing at the same time. There are times, no doubt, when such a claim would merit some serious consideration as well as the invective of those stranded behind.

In brief, it seems to me that Dante has put his cards on the table if not all his eggs in one basket, and done so from the first line. He has a foot in both camps, in the world of rational philosophical discourse especially from the pen of Aristotle, and the world of divine revelation found in both Testaments, and he finds no contradiction between them. To that extent Dante is the ideal Christian thinker. Human understanding may be searching for faith, but faith needs to get a grip on human understanding. One without the other makes nonsense of both.

So God is introduced here as the Prime Mover of the universe but the impetus for all movement is his ‘glory’, a term found in both Old and New Testament to define the manner of God’s creative presence in a created world. Glory, like goodness, must get out there and diffuse itself.

The heavens declare the glory of God

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 18.2)

penetra e risplende

penetrates and shines forth

Penetrates in the sense that every item that comes from the hand of the creator carries deep within it, as its very essence, something of the divine goodness which brought it into existence in the first place; shines forth is an attempt to describe the fact that this essential goodness reveals itself within the universe in keeping with its nature.

In una parte più e meno altrove

In one part more and less elsewhere

In other words, within creation there exists a hierarchy of beings. The traditional Christian classification would include intellectual beings, angelic and human, animal life and inanimate objects. Dante expresses this tradition in his own poetic way, tracing the major divisions within creation to a greater or lesser participation in the glory of God. He takes this thought further with his comment that the greatest participation in the divine glory is to be found in heaven which he had recently visited:

Nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende

fu’io

In heaven which enjoys more of his light

I have been

Although Dante is about to describe his experience of heaven to mortal men he acknowledges his own limitations. He saw things that are beyond his capacity to describe and he explains why. The nearer the human mind reaches the focus of its desires and the further it penetrates into the life of God the less able is the human memory to catch up. This is not so far from the experience of today’s astronauts as their spacecraft accelerates under the magnetic attraction of the moon. Conscious that he is unequal to formulating a convincing description of this experience Dante makes his excuses.   He is not alone in this sense of inadequacy. Saint Paul, who laid claim to a vision of heaven, makes a similar disclaimer: ‘I will move on to visions and revelations from the Lord…I know a man in Christ who was caught right into the third heaven…was caught up into paradise and heard words that cannot and may not be spoken by any human being…’(2 Corinthians 12.1ff).

Notwithstanding his limitations, Dante, like St Paul, is prepared to give it his best shot and we are invited to share his treasured memories:

Veramente quant’io del regno santo

nella mia mente potei far tesoro,

sarà ora matera del mio canto

This will now be the subject of my song.

Ciao, cari amici d’Italia e bon proseguimento.

 

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