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Dante's Paradiso: The Cantos

Canto I. Appeal to Apollo

"Oh Good Apollo, make me worthy of this last labor." Now Dante ascends from the earth to the spheres of heaven. The Paradiso is the Cantica of Beatrice. The recurring theme is the difficulty of conveying the experience in language. Thus the whole of Paradiso is a continuing essay on poetry itself and on language, memory, and expression. The light of Paradiso is bright full noon after the darkness of Inferno and the promising Dawn of Purgatorio.

Canto II. Sphere of the Moon.

Warning to the Reader: O You who in a little boat have followed behind my ship, that singing makes her way forward, turn back to see your shores again. Beware. You may get lost and then you will be in trouble. These waters have never been sailed before. (These lines remind one of the opening lines of Purgatorio where we encounter another little digression on poetry and the poet: the little boat of my wit.) Beatrice explains the spots of the moon and the order of the universe. Beatrice gazing upward and he is following her.

Canto III. Sphere of the Moon. Piccarda.

The stories of Piccarda Donati and Empress Constance both of whom are taken out of the convent into the real world. Faith inconstant.

Canto IV. Sphere of the Moon. The Soul.

The progress of Dante's mind to God. Beatrice resolves two of Dante's doubts about the free will Plato's ideas about the soul.

Canto V. Sphere of Mercury: Vows.

The stories of Piccarda and Constance have raised the subject of sacred vows and how we are to obey them. Here Beatrice discourses on vows

Canto VI. Sphere of Mercury: Justinian

"I was Caesar and am Justinian." Here we get the only canto in the whole of the Divine Comedy that gives us a single speaker all the way through. This is Justinian's canto as spokesman for the concept of the Holy Roman Empire. Dante chooses Justinian as the embodiment of the one great moment in the history of the empire when the secular and religious arms cooperated as he thought they should do. Here we get some history of the empire and a dissertation on the proper world order. Dante's choice of Justinian as the spokesman for the empire was surely influenced by the fact that he was living in Ravenna, the site of the great Justinian architectural creation of San Vitale, while he was writing the Paradiso.

Canto VII. Sphere of Mercury.

Justinian departs and Beatrice delivers a somewhat Scholastic dissertation on human redemption: the Divine Plan. Divine Justice.

Canto VIII.Sphere of Venus: Chas. Martel.

In the sphere of Venus we encounter stories of love marred by wantonness. But most fascinating about canto VIII is Dante's meeting with Charles Martel, an important figure in Florentine history.

Canto IX. Sphere of Venus: Cunizza, Folco.

Here are stories of love transformed. Dante meets Cunizza, sister of the tyrant ruler of Treviso, Ezzolino, and Folco. Folco delivers a scathing and somewhat un-paradisiacal denunciation of Florence. (Now in his last years, living in Ravenna, Dante seems to become more harsh in his assessment of his beloved Florence.)

Canto X. Sphere of Sun: Thomas Aquinas.
The Theologians (X-XIII)

Remember: for Dante the Sun is another planet, the fourth planet. Here at the beginning of Canto X Dante addresses us directly to lift up our eyes to the beauty of the creation. Now we will meet some of the philosophers who have written on that creation. We meet Thomas Aquinas in
line 99.

Canto XI. Sphere of Sun: Saint Francis

Canto XI is a hymn of praise for Saint Francis of Assisi delivered by the Dominican Thomas Aquinas as in the next canto the Franciscan Bonaventura will praise Saint Dominic.

Canto XII. Sphere of Sun: Saint Dominic.

Saint Bonaventura of equal fame in the world of thirteenth-century Paris theology with Thomas Aquinas, now delivers another hymn of praise, this one for Dominic.

Canto XIII. Sphere of Sun: Prudence.

Saint Thomas Aquinas delivers an oration on the beauty and perfection of God's creation..

Canto XIV. Sphere of Mars: Fortitude
The Warriors. (XIV-XVII)

Now in these cantos of the sphere of Mars we will meet great warriors in the cause of the Lord. And in Canto XIV Solomon delivers a discourse on the resurrection of the body.

Canto XV. Sphere of Mars: Cacciaguida.

In cantos XV-XVII Dante meets his ancestor Cacciaguida and engages in the most intimate dialogue of the whole of the Paradiso. With Cacciaguida, Dante discusses his own family, his own personal story, and most shocking to him, hears Cacciaguida's prophecy about his future (after 1300) in Florence. These three cantos are rich and wonderful and completely human.

Canto XVI. Sphere of Mars: Cacciaguida.

Cacciaguida talks of the great families of Florence and their decline. Here is the ever-present vision of Dante: things used to be better than they are now.

Canto XVII. Sphere of Mars: Cacciaguida.

The most important lines in Canto XVII have to do with Dante's future which his ancestor knows. Lines 46 begins the lamentable prophecy: that Dante will be driven out of Florence.

Canto XVIII. Sphere of Jupiter: Justice
The Rulers of the Earth (XVIII-XX).

In the sphere of the pure, white Jupiter we meet some of the just rulers of the earth: Joshua, Charlemagne, and Robert Guiscard.

Canto XIX. Sphere of Jupiter: The Eagle.

"Before me appeared with open wings the beautiful image" the image of an eagle, the Divine power. The eagle speaks about divine justice.

Canto XX. Sphere of Jupiter: King David.

Dante meets some of the great rulers: King David, Trajan, Constantine.

Canto XXI. Sphere of Saturn: Temperance.
The Contemplatives (XXI-XXII)

Notice that the contemplatives are higher in heaven than the rulers. Thus Dante accepts the Medieval notion that the highest calling is to leave the world and devote oneself to prayer and contemplation. Here he meets Peter Damian who was from Ravenna.

Canto XXII. Sphere of Saturn: Benedict.

Dante is overwhelmed with amazement at the wonders of the heavens and runs to his Beatrice like a child running to his mother. Here Dante meets Saint Benedict, father of Western monasticism. In line 151, Dante gives us one of the great images of the DC: he looks down onto earth and sees us all down here as on a threshing floor, in the midst of the separation of the wheat from the chaff. (Luke 3:18.)

Canto XXIII. Sphere of the Fixed Stars.
The Greatest Saints (XXIII-XXVI).

Now Dante and Beatrice ascend into the sphere of the Fixed Stars where they meet the Greatest Saints who each examine Dante on various aspects of the faith.

Canto XXIV. Sphere of the Fixed Stars.
Saint Peter on Faith..

Peter examines Dante on Faith. The exchange resembles an academic examination in the medieval university.

Canto XXV. Sphere of the Fixed Stars.
Saint James on Hope.

James examines Dante on Hope. Our author opens this canto with a heartfelt hope of his own: that he might return one day to his Florence.

Canto XXVI. Sphere of the Fixed Stars.
Saint John on Love.

John examines Dante on Love. An especially interesting passage is Dante's speculations on the origins of language which begin at line 114.

Canto XXVII. The Crystalline Sphere
Ulysses and the Threshing Floor..

Now the travelers are moving up beyond time and space. Here in the Crystalline Sphere the canto opens with the invocation of the Trinity. Most memorable are the wonderful lines that begin at line 79 when Beatrice invites him to look down on this little earth and he sees the "mad track of Ulysses" and the threshing floor.

Canto XXVIII. The Crystalline Sphere.
The Angelic Orders.

Beatrice explains to Dante the Angelic orders. His material comes from both Old and New Testament sources.

Canto XXIX. The Crystalline Sphere.
The Angelic Orders.

Beatrice continues to explain the functions of the angels and various divine powers.

Canto XXX. The Empyrean.

The name of this the final upper reaches of Heaven comes from Latin signifying pure fire and pure light. Both the ancient classic culture and the Christian used this image of pure fire and pure light to imagine heaven. Beatrice and Dante now ascend into the Empyrean which takes them beyond time and beyond space. Thus Dante must remind us continually that he will be inadequate to the task of describing for us what he saw and experienced. This theme is one of the central themes of the whole of the Paradiso as opposed to the other two Cantica. Here in the Empyrean they see the river of light and the Celestial Rose.

Canto XXXI. The Empyrean.
Goodbye to Beatrice. Hello to Saint Bernard.

In Canto XXXI Beatrice leaves Dante and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux takes over as his new guide. Bernard was the most famous of Medieval mystics and thus the change of guides signals that now at this level of Dante's progress he must become a mere prayerful pilgrim.

Canto XXXII. The Empyrean.

Bernard directs Dante's gaze into the vision of the Celestial Rose where he can see all the saints gathered.

Canto XXXIII. The Beatific Vision.

Now Dante reaches the highest insight and sees the whole of the Beatific Vision in which we see all and understand all of the whole of creation and of all time. And in this supreme moment of insight, he sees the Universe as a Book, "In its depth I saw that it contained, bound by Love in one volume, that which is scattered in the leaves of the universe."(lines 85-87)