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How Dante Tuscanised Heaven

Dante did not arrive at Heavens literary door empty handed  He came to heaven armed with the vernacular, with an image of the woman he loved and of the city he grew up in, and also with an attachment to classical literature that he wasn’t going to let Christianity deprive him of. Putting his own people there, he came to heaven to humanise – and Tuscanise – the place.

The Paradiso is itself an inexhaustible source of light for future generations of poets. In its pages we keep meeting the future: in English poetry alone there are Chaucer (whose Troilus looks down from ‘the eighth sphere’ at ‘this little spot of earth that with the sea/Embracèd is’), Milton and Shelley (in whose ‘Triumph of Life’ Eliot rightly saw ‘some of the greatest and most Dantesque lines in English’). Within Italian poetry the debt is incalculable, and continues. 

If heaven is where the human reaches beyond itself and the divine begins, where time ends and eternity begins, the challenge for Dante is to write about a state of fulfilment and yet to keep the account moving, in both senses, and interesting

Dante set out in his poem to go beyond human experience, to ‘trasumanar’,  Apart from any numerological significance, these invented words erode the whole notion of a singular identity. Such being is beyond earthly powers to describe, but Dante dedicates his verbal skills to giving the reader a glimpse – or rather a progression of ever expanding glimpses – of what this beyond might be like.

Beatrice begins one typical lesson by saying ‘secondo mio infallibile avviso’ (‘in my infallible opinion’) but her teaching is not only administered with smiles: she puts on a whole firework display of inner glowing. The words for light indefatigably multiply through the poem: lucelumeraggiosfavillabalenoscintillasplendorefulgore

Dante's God is forever about His own business. Even before the Creation, Dante is at pains to point out that He was occupied: ‘Né prima quasi torpente si giacque …’ This is translated as: ‘Nor, before then, did He rest in torpor,/for until God moved upon these waters/there existed no “before”, there was no “after”.’ 

God had no time to waste since there was no such thing as time, but even in denial the line agreeably conjures up a loafing God. Those jobs that need doing are done by angels, who govern the movement of the heavenly spheres. Dante’s argument for their being coeval with the Creation is that had they been made earlier they’d have been redundant, a thing nature abhors. Paradise’s occupants have various time-saving devices, such as telepathy and accelerated travel, even though there is no time to save. Angels, according to Dante, have no language of their own, and the spirits of the blessed no need for words, but Dante is coaxed to express his thoughts anyway. This is a didactic device to help him formulate his ideas, and one that his readers profit by

The inadequacy of language to describe what occurs in heaven is a recurrent theme in Dante as it is in much Christian writing.

It may seem odd that a long discourse on Florence should occupy the middle regions of heaven, but Dante’s bitter relation to his lost city wasn’t to be erased by a visit to the civitas dei.

Dante never fails to humanise even his heavenly figures, such as the irefully blushing St Peter.
The poem’s impulse to go beyond the human makes the question of what humans do in heaven beside the point. Doing belongs to the earthly realm, being to heaven.

This syntactical fusion, combined with a kind of synaesthesia (‘I saw and heard’), is one of Dante’s devices to take us outside our usual mode of perception

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