The most pathetic verses in literature

The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i

Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…

« I, who had come to the divine

from the human, from time to eternity,

and from Florence to the just and healthy people,

of what astonishment I should be filled with! »

Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.

« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».

But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:

« If you look at the third row

from the highest tier, you will see her again.

on the throne won by her merits. »

Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »

Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».

From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:

« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,

and who suffered for my salvation

to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,

of so many things I have seen

by your power and kindness,

I recognize grace and virtue.

You pulled me from bondage to freedom

by all these ways, by all these modes

that you had the power to use.

Preserve in me your magnificence,

that my soul, which thou hast healed,

is untied from my body by pleasing you. »

The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.

What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.

« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana

come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;

poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »

« I prayed like this, and so far away

that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;

then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »

Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.

Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. « 

Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».

The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!

At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.

One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.

Dante had always loved her, but in vain.

And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.

Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.

Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »

But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».

The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.

I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.

For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.

Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.

Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.

« From this point on my vision went further

than our speech, which yields to vision,

and memory gives way to this excess. »iii

In this strange, intermediate state, Dante’s soul lacks the mobility proper to souls who have actually passed to the other side of the experience of death.

Dante describes Beatrice’s departure as if it were the flight of her own soul. The last smile, the last glance, are not “”promises: they are rather delicate metaphors (of death).

Why does Dante confide such ringing certainties, confronting Florentine cynicism and the indifference of the world, unhesitatingly revealing his secret?

Dante has written a work that is not only the product of his creative imagination, but which also recounts Dante’s experience of death, his journey beyond what can be told.

But which can be somewhat evoked, however.

« Such is he who sees in dreams,

and, the dream being over, the impregnated passion

stays, and he doesn’t remember anything else,

such as I am now, for my vision

almost completely ceases, and in my heart

still flows the softness that was born from her.”iv

The vision almost has ceased. In the light leaves the sentence of Sibyl was lost. But Dante did not forget everything.

« O sovereign light that so much raises you up

above mortal thoughts, repeat a little bit

to my mind of what you looked like,

and make my tongue so powerful

that a spark of your glory

can reach to future people.”v

On the brink of death, Dante was very bold. He resisted. He knew how to « unite his gaze with the infinite value ». He planted his eyes in the eternal fire.

How well I understand these verses! How faithfully I follow Dante in the memory of his journey!

« In its depths I see that is recollected,

lovingly bound in one volume,

what in the universe is disseminating itself :

accidents and substances and their modalities

as fused together, so that

that what I’m saying about it is just a glimmer.

I do believe that I saw the universal form

of this knot, for in saying these words

I feel in me a widening of the enjoyment.”vi

Dante! Very human brother! Discoverer of heights! You have not failed in any way, you have been able to transmit the spark that remained to the people of the Future.

« Thus my soul, all in suspense,

stared, motionless, attentive,

and was constantly on fire looking again.

In this light one becomes such

than to turn away from it for another vision

is impossible to consent to forever.”vii

Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».

O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.

O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!

iDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXI

iiJ.-L. Borgès. Neuf essais sur Dante. Le dernier sourire de Béatrice. In Œuvres complètes t.2. Gallimard. 2010, p.861

iiiDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII

ivDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII

vDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII



How to Found Romes of One’s Liking

Pythagoras, Enoch, Moses, Orpheus, Siosiri, Mithrobarzan, Aeneas, Jesus do have something in common: they all went down to the Underworld, and then came back from it.

Admittedly, they were not very talkative about what they saw there. They were probably required to keep a certain discretion about what they had discovered in the Other World.

But by collating their testimonies, we can draw some general lessons.

All those who have visited the depths of Time share common features. Their birth was miraculous, their intelligence lively and early. One day, they go down to the underworld, make discoveries, return to the world, in an apotheosis, realize very significant achievements, and then they disappear again.

It is tempting to assume that they are conforming, in doing so, to a type, a paradigm. In their apparent diversity, their infernal journeys are essentially similar. All you have to do is mention one, to find them all.

However, perhaps the most poetic of these descents into Hell was that of Aeneas, narrated by Virgil.

It all begins with a visit from Aeneas to Cumae, in the cave of the Sibyl. This high priestess of Phoebes and Hecate exclaimed: « It is time to question the destinies. The God, this is the God!”. Aeneas begins a prayer, while the prophetess still resists the embrace of God: “She struggles in her den like a wild bacchanal, and seeks to shake the Almighty God out of her chest. »

Aeneas insists. He wants to go down to the underworld. He wants to see his father there again. It is indeed an exorbitant privilege, but he has the ability to do so. « I too am of the race of the sovereign Jupiter », he says.

The Sibyl replies that it is in fact easy to descend to the Avern. It is to retrace one’s steps, to go back up to the light from above which is difficult, which is the hard test. There are the mud of the Acheron, the black waters of the Cocyte, the waves of the Styx, the dark Tartarus, the silent night of the Phlegeton with its torrents of flame. These obstacles must be overcome twice, on the way to and on the way back.

Aeneas and Sibyl then sink into the depths of the earth. « They went like shadows by the deserted night, through the darkness and the vast dwellings of Pluto and his kingdom of simulacra. »

After many adventures, Aeneas meets his father Anchises. Contact is not easy. « Three times he tried to surround his neck with his arms; three times, in vain, the shadow ran down his hands like a light breath, like a dream that flies away. »

Aeneas asks him a question. He wants to know why there are so many souls « who yearn again to enter into the thick bonds of the body ». Anchises then starts to explain « all these beautiful secrets » to him.

« And first of all, the sky, the earth, the liquid plains, the luminous globe of the moon, the Titanic star of the sun, are penetrated and enlivened by a spiritual principle: spread in all parts of the world, the spirit makes the whole mass move, and transforms it by mixing with this vast body.”

It is from this principle that men, animals, birds, and monsters of the Ocean are born. All the germs of life owe their vigour to their celestial origin. Despite this, souls know fears, desires, pains, joys, and they remain trapped in their darkness and blind jails, when life leaves them.

It takes thousands of years of suffering and punishment for the soul to, one day, recover its purity, the initial spark of the fire that has been granted to it.

Anchises accurately describes the fate that awaits the descendants of Aeneas and what Rome will become. That’s all said and done.

Without transition, the return to light is almost instantaneous. Anchises led Aeneas and Sibyl back to the « bright ivory » gate, which Manes only use to send « illusory ghosts » to the World from above.

It is through this door that Aeneas passes, « cutting as short as possible ».

Aeneas had just succeeded to come back to the World. Then he founded Rome.

Who can claim to have had a similar experience? As I said earlier: Pythagoras, Enoch, Moses, Orpheus, Siosiri, Mithrobarzan, Jesus, all did go to the Underworld, they came back, and then they founded “Romes” of their liking, kingdoms of their kind.

Why is that so?