Dante, Purgatory: Canto XI

A weekly poem, read by the author.
July 2 1998 3:30 AM

Dante, Purgatory: Canto XI

Dante, Purgatory: Canto XI

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To hear the poet read "Dante, Purgatory: Canto XI," click here.

"Our Father, who are in heaven, encircled by
    nothing except the greater love you have
    for the first works that you made there on high,

praised be your name and your power by
    every creature, with those thanks that are due
    for the sweet emanation that flows from you.

May the peace of your kingdom come to us
    who are not able to reach it by ourselves
    try as we may, unless it comes to us.

As your angels make sacrifice to you
    of their wills singing hosannas, even so
    may humans offer their own wills to you.

Give us today the manna of every day
    for without it, in this harsh desert we
    go backward, straining forward as we may.

And as we pardon each one for the harm
    that we have suffered, in loving-kindness
    overlook what we deserve, and pardon us.

Do not oppose to the old adversary
    our virtue that gives way so easily
    but deliver us from his goading of it.

This last request we make not for ourselves,
    dear Lord, who do not need it now for us.
    It is for those who remain behind us."

Thus praying for Godspeed for themselves
    and us whose souls went on under their burden
    like one that sometimes in a dream is borne,

their torment differing, all of them wearily
    making the circuit of the first terrace,
    purging the mists of the world away.

If they are always asking for our good there
    what can be said and done for them from here
    by those whose will is rooted in the good?

We should help them to wash away the stains
    they took there, so they can be light and pure
    to go out to the wheeling of the stars.

"Oh, so may justice and mercy free you
    soon of your burden and let you move the wing
    that, according to your longing, lifts you,

show us on which hand is the shorter way
    to the stair, and if there is more than one
    tell us which passage is the less steep one,

for since the one who comes with me is clothed in
    the burden of Adam, against his own
    will, when it comes to climbing, he goes slowly."

It was not clear whose were the words of theirs
    that came in answer after these had been
    spoken by the one I was following

but they said, "To the right. Come with us
    along the bank and you will find the pass
    where a living person would be able to climb

and if I were not hindered by the stone
    that overpowers my neck for its pride
    so that I have to go with my face down

I would look at this one who is still alive
    and is not named, and see whether I
    know him, and have his pity for this weight I carry.

I was Italian and born of a great Tuscan.
    Guglielmo Aldobrandesco was my father's name.
    I wonder whether you ever heard of him.

The ancient blood and the resplendent
    deeds of my forebears made me so arrogant
    that without thinking of our common mother

I took my scorn of every man so far
    it was the death of me, as they in Siena know
    and every child in Campagnatico.

I am Omberto, and pride has brought injury
    not only to me but my whole family
    dragging them with it into calamity.

And here I must bear this because of that
    until God is satisfied. What I would not
    do among the living I do here among the dead."

I had put my face down where I could listen
    and one of them, not the one who had spoken,
    twisted under the weight that held him down

and saw me and knew me and called as he
    went on struggling to keep his eyes on me
    while I went along bent over with them.

"Oh," I said to him, "are you not Oderisi,
    the honor of Gubbio, the honor of that art that in
    Paris they call illumination?"

"Brother," he said, "the pages smile more
    from the brush strokes of Franco of Bologna.
    Now the honor is all his, apart from my share.

I would not, indeed, have been so courteous
    while I was living, because of the great
    desire to excel, on which my heart was set.

Here is where the fine for pride like that is paid,
    and I would not be here yet, if it were not
    that while I could still sin I turned to God.

Oh the vain glory in human powers!
    How briefly, at the top, the green endures
    unless an age of ignorance comes after!

In painting Cimabue thought the field
    was his alone. Now the cry is Giotto
    so the fame of the other is in shadow

and so the glory of our tongue was taken
    from one Guido by another, and one
    is born now, perhaps, who will push both from the nest.

The noise the world makes is nothing but a breath
    of wind blowing from time to time back and forth,
    the name changing according to where it comes from.

Do you think you will have more fame if you strip away
    the flesh in age than if you die as a baby
    still babbling baby words for bread and money

after a thousand years have passed, which is shorter
    compared to eternity than the blink of an eye
    is to that circle of heaven that turns most slowly?

That one inching so slowly ahead of me,
    all Tuscany once resounded with him
    and now in Siena there is hardly a whisper of him

where he was a lord when they destroyed
    the haughty rabble of Florence that was as proud
    at the time as now it is prostitute.

Your renown is the color of the grass
    that comes and goes, and that which fades it is
    what at first brings it green out of the ground."

And I to him, "The truth you say humbles
    my heart as it should, and shrinks a great swelling in me,
    but the one you were just talking about, who is he?"

"That one," he answered, "is Provenzan Salvani
    who is here because in his presumption he
    wanted to have all Siena in his hands.

The way he is going is the way he has gone
    ever since he died. That is the coin
    in which he pays up for his rashness over there."

And I, "If a spirit waits until the edge
    of life before repenting, and remains there
    down below and does not come up here

until as much time passes as he lived
    unless he is assisted by good prayer
    how was he given leave to come here?"

"When he was living in his glory," he said,
    "one time, putting aside all shame, he stood,
    by his own will, in the market place of Siena

where, to ransom a friend from the pains
    he was suffering in Carlo's prison, he
    brought himself to tremble in all his veins.

I will say no more, and I speak, as I know,
    darkly, but something your neighbors will do
    before long will allow you to expound this.

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What he did there released him from those confines."

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Lilly Prize winner W.S. Merwin's latest book of poetry is titled The Folding Cliffs. He is the author of The Vixen.

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