Dante’s Paradiso Canto XIII: “Wait for it.”


For the season of Advent, I’ve been re-reading Dante’s Paradiso. This particular part of the Commedia has never been my favorite, but I encountered this remarkable and timely gem in Canto XIII, as Dante, guided by Beatrice, converses with and receives a stern warning from St. Thomas Aquinas to conclude the Canto. I’ll post first a poetic version, translated by James Finn Cotter, followed by a prose version from Poetry in Translation, and leave them here for the reader without the benefit of further commentary:

“And let my words be lead weights to your feet,                                                                         To slow you, like a weary man, from hastening                                                                         To the yes or no of what you do not see.

“For he is well placed low among the fools                                                                              Who, whether in affirming or denying,                                                                                    Does not distinguish one case from the other.

“For often it occurs that one’s opinion,                                                                                   When quickly formed, leans in the wrong direction,                                                             And vanity then binds the intellect.

“It is far worse than vain to quit the shore                                                                                   To fish for truth and not possess the skill,                                                                               Since one returns worse off than when he left.

“Again, let people not be too secure                                                                                                 In how they judge, like someone who would count                                                                 The ears of corn before the field is ripe.

“For I have seen first, all the winter through,                                                                            The briar show itself barbed and unbending,                                                                          And then upon its stem it bears a rose.

“And I have seen a ship sail swift and straight                                                                         Over the vast sea, through her entire course,                                                                              To sink at last while entering the harbor.

“Let every Jack and Jill not think, if they                                                                                     See someone steal and someone make an offering                                                                 That they observe them with divine omniscience,

“For the thief may rise up, and the donor fall.”

Prose: “And let this always weight your feet down with lead, and make you go slowly, like a tired man, approaching the yes or no you do not grasp, since he is truly down there among the fools, who affirms or denies without distinguishing between cases, so that it often happens that a quick opinion leans to the wrong side, and then Pride entangles the intellect. He leaves the shore less than uselessly, since he does not even return as he went, fishing for truth without the angler’s skill….

Do not let people be too secure in their judgements, like those who count the ears of corn in the field before the crop ripens, since I have seen, all winter long, the thorn display itself, sharp and forbidding, and then on its summit bear the rose; and before now I have seen a ship run straight and sure over the sea for her entire course, and sink in the end, entering the harbour mouth. Do not let Jack and Jill think, that if they see someone steal or another make offering they therefore see them as Divine Wisdom does, since the one may still rise, and the other fall.’