Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 33 | Summary

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Summary

In a long and lyrical prayer, Saint Bernard implores the Virgin Mary to

free [Dante]
from all the clouds of his mortality,
so highest happiness be shown to him.

In other words, he asks her to make Dante pure and worthy to directly behold God's presence. Mary accedes to the saint's wish, and Dante finds his eyesight made still purer and clearer than ever before. Gazing into the center of the heavenly court, he sees creation, in its myriad causes and effects, "bound up and gathered in a single book." Although the light itself does not change, Dante finds himself discerning more and more as he gazes on. Eventually he sees the Trinity made manifest as three luminous spheres, a sight that prompts him to rhapsodize about God's infinite self-sufficiency. "Eternal light," he marvels, "you sojourn in yourself alone." The spheres seem, without losing their shape, to take on a human form, but the image is too much for Dante to make sense of. Overawed by what he has seen, Dante concludes the Divine Comedy after 15,000 lines of rhymed poetry with praise for the "love that moves the sun and other stars." The same word stars (thought to be the reflected light of the sun) is the same fitting word that closed the other parts of Hell and Purgatory.

Analysis

Mortality, for Dante, is a "cloud," an obscuring haze preventing the truth from fully being seen. Little by little, the events of the Divine Comedy remove the cloud from Dante's vision, preparing him for ever more direct glimpses of God. In praying for Dante's sight to be purified, Bernard recalls the whole succession of sight-and-blindness imagery used in the Comedy's previous cantos. The blessing he asks for is, in a sense, the finishing touch in Dante's process of spiritual maturation, light shining into the darkness of earthy life.

In the Inferno Dante is often blinded by the dismal gloom that surrounds him, thus participating—miserably—in the lack of spiritual vision that is sin. Then, in Purgatory, Dante revisits this blindness on the terrace of the wrathful, where hallucinogenic smog enshrouds the penitents. This foul vapor serves as a reminder of the ways in which passions can "blind" a person, causing them to act in a violent and deluded manner. Purgatory is also the scene of several episodes in which Dante is dazzled by radiant lights, later revealed to be angels. Thus, although he is now "seeing" sin for the trap it is, Dante's vision is not yet strong or sharp enough to see God's messengers with clarity. This all changes gloriously in Paradise, as Dante's eyes gradually adjust to the brilliant light thrown off by the souls of the blessed.
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