I’ve been reading third cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradiso. Each cantica is quite different in texture. Paradiso doesn’t have the drama of the other two canticas but I think it has the most soaring poetry. I’m not going to get into the structure and analysis of Paradiso here. I just want to highlight a short section from Canto X.
Dante the character is traveling through the heavens with his new guide, his beloved Beatrice and they reach the sphere of the sun, which is considered the sphere of the wise. You can read about the divisions of the heavens at the Paradiso Wikipedia entry and what each sphere stands for. The sphere of the sun is probably one of the more important spheres, and here Dante is allowed to see the God’s workings of the universe. Here is the remarkable passage. I am using the husband and wife teamed Robert and Jean Hollander translation.
Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
when the bride of God gets up to sing
matins to her bridegroom, that he should love her still,
when a cog pulls one wheel and drives another,
chiming its ting-ting with notes so sweet
that the willing spirit swells with love,
thus I saw the glorious wheel in motion,
matching voice to voice in harmony
and with sweetness that cannot be known
except where joy becomes eternal.
-Paradiso, Canto X.139-148
I should post the Italian, where you can hear Dante’s beautiful language selection.
Indi, come orologio che ne chiami
ne l’ora che la sposa di Dio surge
a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami,
che l’una parte e l’altra tira e urge,
tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota,
che ’l ben disposto spirto d’amor turge;
così vid’ ïo la gloriosa rota
muoversi e render voce a voce in tempra
e in dolcezza ch’esser non pò nota
se non colà dove gioir s’insempra.
According to Hollander’s notes, this is probably the first time in literature any writer has referred to the heavens as the workings of a mechanical clock. So what today has become a cliché was with Dante a sparkling original image. But it’s not just a clock mechanically turning. There are several metaphors inside a simile, which makes it a bit complicated to understand, but once you do you can see the beauty of the poetry.
The clock, which is the universe, is like the “bride of God” singing matins (Morning Prayer) to her beloved husband, appealing for his love, the clock chiming “ting-ting.” God who works through love drives the clock, responding to the clock’s love. The Creator loves the creation which loves the Creator. And thus one sees the workings of the universe as a reciprocal response of love.