You will probably find Paradiso an extremely strange narrative, since so much of it feels non-narrative. Large passages describe in detail manifestations of light which present themselves to Dante as he rises through the material heavens (e.g., the planets) to Heaven (or the Empyrean, as he terms it), and much of Paradiso consists of improbably long speeches by several of the souls the Pilgrim encounters, but especially by Beatrice. It may be tempting to scan past these passages to get back to the plot. That's ok, but do so only if you then return to the scanned passage for a close rereading. It takes some adjustment to adopt a new aesthetic attitude, but try to think of these lengthy set speeches as analogous to arias in an opera, the polished show-pieces in which the composer and performer demonstrate their real virtuosity as artists. As you read through these passages of theological or philosophical or scientific discourse, remember to pay attention to their "poetic" uses of language, especially figurative language, such as metaphor and simile. As so often in reading Dante, read what's there, and see if there is some connection--through the language--to other issues in this part of the poem or to larger and ongoing issues in the Commediaas a whole.
1. There is an invocation early in Canto 1 to Apollo, who pretty clearly serves as a stand-in here for the Christian God from whom the poet really seeks inspiration in this final canticle. If Dante is going to choose a classical god for this role, why not the chief deity, Jupiter? Which aspects of Apollo get focused on here? How is the Marsyas story used? How about the Glaucus story later in the canto? Both are tales of transformation told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and both are here adapted to serve Dante's very different narrative purposes at the beginning of Paradiso. How so? You will find, incidentally that Ovid replaces Virgil in the Paradiso as the classical author most often alluded to. Later in the canto, Beatrice reads Dante's mind, asks his unexpressed question, and then answers it. (Get used to it--saints can do that sort of thing.) What question is that (82-87)? What is her answer; what is her point about the great sea of being (103-141)?
2. Dante on the "moonspots"--a real barrier. This has to be one of the most daunting passages in the history of poetry, Dante's question about the origin of the marks on the moon (49-51), his apparently erroneous attempt at an explanation (52-58), and Beatrice's "right answer" (61-148). The canto begins with distinctions between big boats and little boats. What exactly is the point of the comparison--what are the boats? What exactly is the point about the bread of angels"? What exactly is the point about Jason and the Argonauts? Is there any connection between these introductory references and the discussion of the moonspots which follows. (By the way, trust Dante: if something seems so irrelevant and gets so much space at such a critical moment in the poem, it must be important!)
3. Dante meets his first saved souls. What mistake does he make when he first sees them? How is this the opposite of the error of Narcissus (16-18)? As the first soul with whom Dante has an extended encounter in this canticle, Piccarda (sister of his old buddy Forese in whose face he can read OMO back in Purgatorio 23) has a priority akin to that of the first souls met in the other canticles, Francesca and Manfred (whose grandmother Constance is here at the end of the canto). At line 41 Dante asks his usual question--who are you and why are you here. In her answer, what other issues get raised that begin to inform us of the attitudes of saved souls? Hint: Dante asks a follow-up question about it (64-66) and she makes a follow-up response (70-87).
4. The Pilgrim has two questions here, the more serious of which has to do with whether souls after death return to a birth planet as Plato had argued (and as Piccarda's "presence" in the moon seems to confirm). What is Beatrice's answer to this question? Please note that it's essential to our enterprise: without it Paradiso could not be represented.
5. The second question in Canto 4 had to do with the relationship of freedom to behavior which has been coerced by violence, and to the answer to be found there Canto 5 adds an extended discussion. This is the moment in the poem which Virgil had hinted at in Purgatorio 18 when he offered to speak about the relationship between love and freedom as far as he could do so aided only by reason , promising that Beatrice would take up the discussion from that point. How does she do this in her discussion over whether one can ever offer compensation for broken vows? This is an interestingly self-referential, metaliterary canto. What is the effect of line 16? Of line 85? Of the canto's last two lines? Especially of line 109, holding out the possibility that he might abandon writing the poem at this point (don't get your hopes up)? At line 85, we move from the Moon to Mercury. How is the transition described?
6. Justinian is the only character Dante meets anywhere in the Commedia who speaks an entire canto. (The whole of canto 6, you will notice, is in quotation marks.) Why would he have this privilege? What is the relationship between his faith and his "high task?" The canto is structured as an answer to Dante's two questions in Canto 5--the familiar ones he has asked throughout the Commedia: who are you and why are you here? After he answers the first of these, Justinian presents an extensive history of the Roman Empire, presented as the history of the eagle symbol, the symbol on the imperial flag called here "the sacred standard" (32), in Italian, the "sacrosanto segno." What is Justinian's (Dante's ?) point in presenting this history? In what terms does Justinian present Romeo at the end of the canto? (Does this representation of Romeo remind you of anyone you've grown to know and love? Does Justinian?)
7. Another question--here asked by Beatrice on Dante's behalf--got raised in Justinian's account of the crucifixion in the previous canto. How can a just vengeance be justly avenged? The problem seems so involved in medieval theology, you're left wondering if it matters? Does it? To Dante's sense of the function or power of poetry? To his vision of history? (Want to guess what Dante scholars have decided?) The canto moves on to a discussion of the necessity of the "Incarnation," the theological term for Jesus' birth as a human being, his taking on of human flesh. Why, according to this canto, is this method selected by God as the way to make amends for the fall? What are the implications for Dante's poetics? (Remember our frequent suggestion that Dante tries to create the way God did. Or is it vice-versa?)
8. The beginning of Canto 8, the introduction to the heaven of Venus, is one of those set pieces that is too easily read over too quickly because the rhetorical high style is nowadays so uncongenial. Read it slowly and pay attention to the distinctions being made. What's at stake in this passage? In the encounter with Charles Martel, what causes his fluctuations of brightness? What's the point of Charles's dual discussion of the harmony of creation (94-112) and the diversity of talents among diverse people (122-148). Any implications for our hero-pilgrim? For our poet?
9. An extension, in some ways of the previous canto(s): what does Folco explain as the cause for their brightness? In lines 103 ff., what, according to Folco, do the souls do in heaven? (Is this the way you have thought medieval Christians thought about heaven--assuming you've ever thought about this?) Same concluding question for this canto as for the previous canto: Any implications for our hero-pilgrim? For our poet?
10. How is the Holy Trinity described in the beginning of the canto? What are you asked to do next, reader? Any connection between you and the Trinity? Why the focus on the inadequacy of Dante's art at this point? Boethius gets special attention in Thomas Aquinas's catalogue. On what terms does he praise him? The sun seems to be the most useful of heavenly bodies to people: we use it for warmth, light, and as a means of measuring the passage of time. Which aspects seem to be particularly focused on in this canto?
11. Read the "romance" of St. Francis and his beloved Lady Poverty carefully. What figurative language particularly characterizes this narrative? How does Thomas characterize the relationship between St. Francis and St. Dominic?
12. St. Francis had been presented as a lover. How is St. Dominic presented? Pay specific attention to the figurative language which St. Bonaventure uses in Canto 12.
One of the phenomena we've been tracking throughout the semester has been the way the Commedia seems to become a self-contained world: reading the text prepares you to read the text. As we approach the mid-point of the final canticle, we finally have presented some of the principles which seem to underlie the poem as a whole.
13-14. These cantos are like some others that we've encountered in the Commedia: they seem to be filler, here separating the presentation of the two circles of writer/thinkers from the dramatic encounter with Cacciaguida in Mars. Are there ways in which these cantos tell us something about Dante's attitudes toward literature? About the specific literary enterprise which he has undertaken? What do we learn here about divine justice?
15-16. In Cantos 15-16, how does Dante shape our attitude toward the city that has exiled him? What is the difference between Florence in the good old days, when Cacciaguida was alive, and in Dante's day?
17. Perhaps the most important of these is the exchange with Cacciaguida in Canto 17. Staged as a prediction of events in the future (from the fictional time of 1300), it is more of a life-review (from ca. 1320), in which the encounter of Dante and Cacciaguida seems more like one between Pilgrim and Poet. As such, it gives us some specific hints about how Dante saw his own life and how he wants us to interpret it.
In the first of his lengthy speeches (37-92), Cacciaguida clarifies for Dante how he will live as an exile; in the second speech (124-142), how he should write as a poet of exile. Are there parallels between the two presentations. What role is played by the references to classical mythology, such as Phaeton and Hippolytus? What is the Pilgrim's attitude toward time? What kind of imagery does he use to talk about time? What is Cacciaguida's attitude toward time? What kind of imagery does he use? What is Dante's attitude toward his former allies?
Paradiso 18-22 take us fairly quickly from Mars to Jupiter to Saturn and on to the fixed stars, from Cacciaguida to the outer reaches of the visible universe. Throughout these cantos, I'd ask you to pay particular attention to two interrelated topics: speculation about judgment (divine judgment most obviously, but Dante's, as well), and the ongoing speculation about the nature of, and function of, art (poetry, language, narrative).
A. We've already seen suggestions that divine justice cannot be comprehended in human terms (see the end of Canto 13, for example), but this section of the poem is where the question is re-opened with particular force: through the status of the man born on the banks of the Indus in Canto 19 and through he salvation of Trajan and especially of Ripheus in Canto 20. The question--which we are told has for long plagued Dante--expresses in terms of geographical distance, what the poem otherwise presents as chronological distance: the problem as we are made to feel it in the poem is not the man born on the banks of the Indus, but Virgil. Do these cantos open the door for Virgil's salvation? Or open it only to shut it again? (Think of the problems Ripheus raises.)
B. Be alert to the many representations of this text's self-consciousness about literature and its own literariness. For openers, consider the way question 1 tests the central premise of the whole Commedia: if no one can presume to understand diving justice, on what terms can Dante assign people to eternal pigeonholes? Is Dante here raising what his readers are likely to feel uneasy about in the poem? Does he resolve the problem?
Think about other ways Dante represents problems of representation. Saved souls shape themselves into mosaic letters and then convert the last letter into a series of two symbols, "segni," the second of which, the imperial eagle, sings "cantos" and converses with Dante. Throughout these cantos, there are images of shaping and painting and storytelling and mirroring and figuring. God is frequently described as an artist and Dante seems almost to invoke his birth sign, Gemini, as the source of his genius (22.115). Track the implications of this type of reference (and don't forget the glance back through the heavens at the end of 22).
C. A corollary: both A and B imply a stance toward time, toward history. The kinds of questions raised in these cantos by such figures as Cacciaguida, Peter Damian, and Benedict, and by the Eagle's presentation of the souls who comprise its eye, all examine the importance of human action in our world. Can we begin to formulate a Dantesque vision of the relationship between time and eternity?
This may be, for twentieth-century American readers, the strangest portion of this entire strange poem. At the end of Canto 22, Dante had entered the fixed stars, looking back through the heavens down to Earth, described as "the little threshing floor which makes us so fierce." In 27, as he leaves the stars, he looks down at the Earth once again, and once again it is called "this little threshing floor" (27.85). In between come the cantos in which Dante arrives (23) and then one each (24-26) in which Dante is examined by Saints Peter, James, and John, the three major Apostles--the followers of Jesus in the Gospels--on the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, after which he discusses with Adam the language originally used in Eden. Perhaps this last exchange is a good clue about how to approach this part of the poem: much of it, despite its theological feel, seems to be about questions of literature and language. (Remember that cantos 24-26 in Inferno and Purgatorio both seem to be about the nature of poetry.)
23. For a canto that takes place so far above our world, it's worth noting how dominated the canto is by specific earthly imagery from the world of nature: the mother bird awaiting dawn; the moon shining on a starry night; the sun-shower breaking through the clouds to illuminate a field of flowers; the hungry baby stretching its arms toward its mother at nursing time. What is it that each of the four images helps to describe? In 23.54 ff., we find what Robert Hollander has called Dante's "non-invocation." What kinds of observations does the Poet make in lines 54-69. Are there other places where the poem seems to be commenting about the nature of poets or of poetry?
24. How are the souls in this heaven manifested to Dante? How is St. Peter described (be specific here) in lines 19-24? How is water imagery used in this canto? What does it have to do with poetry? Read through the questions and answers in Dante's exam on faith. Do any of them engage questions about the nature of poetry?
25. What is the relationship between poetry and exile in this canto? (You can start with lines 1-12, but don't react too hastily.) How many references can you find to exile and pilgrimage in the canto? What does the water imagery imply about poetry, specifically in the exam on hope? (Remember that hope as a theological virtue means something more than the modern English word, something like "expectation" of salvation.) How is St. John introduced at the end of the canto? Through what specific textual allusions? Why does Dante go temporarily blind?
26. In his discussion with Bonagiunta, as you'll recall, Dante said that what characterized his poetry was how closely he followed after "Love." How does this canto redefine the nature of Love? What are the questions exchanged with Adam? What was the nature of language in the garden? What is the relationship of language to exile?
27. Why is this the point at which St. Peter chooses to issue his condemnation of the contemporary papacy? What is the relationship of this indictment to the Pilgrim's condemnation of Nicholas III back in Inferno 19? In lines 88 ff., Dante moves on to the Prime Mover. How does this transition occur? How is time described at the end of the canto?
28. Angels are hard to take seriously for most modern readers of the poem. For Dante, these figures are pure disembodied spirits--like human souls in one way, but never intended to be united to bodies. They also, as groups, serve as the controlling intelligences of each the nine heavens that circle the earth. What's at stake in the dispute over which orders of angels control which heavens?
29. This is a canto completely dominated by Beatrice: she reads the questions from Dante's mind and then answers them. The first has to do with angels--where, when, how--and Beatrice's answers deal with God's motive in creating. Does this suggest something about the nature of Dante's creation? What is the point of the discussion of the three-stringed bow? What do the terms act and potentiality have to do with the discussion about angels? Here's a good final exam question: "true or false, angels have no memory. Explain your answer." What is the relationship between love and knowledge according to the end of this canto?
Paradiso 30-33: Home, Sweet Home
30. Bull's-eye! This is where Dante's flight through the heavens has been headed--the port in the Sea of Being, to recall Paradiso 1's imagery, to which the human soul naturally tends. In this canto, Dante seems to Christianize the idea from Plato's Cave analogy of a "Sun" beyond our earthly sun, as symbol of the Good, the source of Being, which is simultaneously the origin and the goal of things, as well as the principle by which things can be known. This is a canto dominated by gradations of light. What special problems do these ideas create for poetry? How does the "ineffability topos" (use it three times and it's yours) work in lines 19-33)? How does the river become the rose? As a parallel to Virgil's valedictory in Purgatorio 27, Beatrice here ends Paradiso 30 with her final words in the poem. Are they a surprise?
31. This is a canto that presents a variety of pilgrimage images as an analogy for the arrival in heaven. Are they all the same or is some sense of incremental repetition at work here (i.e., does each example add something new to the overall vision)?
32. "The Petrification of the Rose" as a Dante-teacher friend of mine has called this: of all the accommodations to human limitations in the poem, this has to be one of the weirdest. Why? What is the relationship of this architectural structure (outside of time) to time (during which these people all earned their season tickets)? What is the effect of ending the canto with a colon?
33. It's silly to trivialize this canto with questions that seek specific answers, but I don't mind being silly. (Or trivial--you've noticed?) How does the prayer of St. Bernard with which the canto begins touch the beginning of the poem (Inferno 1-2)? Lots of summing up going on here: how does the book image work in 85-93? How about that final seafaring reference that follows (94-99)? The Paradiso essay online talks about the stages through which the Pilgrim's vision goes as he looks directly at God. A few of the large overriding questions: Does the looking of the Pilgrim change God (as happened for example, with the Siren)? The final visions are of God as Trinity and then of the Incarnation--Jesus' dual nature, simultaneously fully divine and fully human. (Don't ask. Miracles are supposed to not make sense. That's the definition of miracle.) How are these final visions of the Pilgrim central to the poem's vision?
Return to Dante HomePage