John Goodby: Paradiso X 133 – 148

Dante does not always allocate souls a place in the afterlife strictly according to their deserts, as many have pointed out. Not only does he vengefully visit torments on his personal enemies, but he will locate souls to suit his symbolic and narrative requirements rather than those of divine justice. So, Manfred, a hardened libertine who repents with his last breath, makes it to Purgatory, while the inoffensive Francesca di Rimini, who slipped just once, and seems the kind of woman who said her prayers every day of her life, is damned forever. As a result, the Commedia is riddled with contradictions, although they never quite destroy it; indeed, it’s arguable that these contradictions, and the genuine doubts Dante allows for, such as the justice of condemning virtuous pagans, actually strengthen his work for modern readers.

Dante allowed for such doubts and disagreements even in Paradise, the best example being the figure of Siger of Brabant (?1226-?1284), a philosopher who taught at the University of Paris. Siger was indebted to the Arabic philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rush, 1126-1198) and defended logical method. He was ferociously attacked by Thomas Aquinas, condemned by the Church in 1277, and murdered in 1283. Nevertheless, in Canto X, in the sphere of the Sun, Siger appears as one of the twelve souls of the Wise and Learned who present themselves to Dante as a circle of whirling lights. This may be Dante celebrating the joys of scholarship and theology, one of his own great pleasures, but like much else it makes this canto unsual. Although Aquinas is the presiding figure of the sphere (and he gets the next canto all to himself), here he has to share equal billing with one who was his bitter opponent in life. Commentators have accounted for his presence by arguing that among Siger’s condemned syllogisms Dante suspected there were some that even Aquinas secretly coveted, or that Dante approved of Siger’s Averroist emphasis on the value of political justice in the secular world – or that he recruited him merely to confound Siger’s rejection of the immortality of the soul.

My own reading inclines towards the positive motives, and in addition to Siger’s attractive abberrancy, I was drawn by the way at the close of the canto Dante compares the sound and motion of the shining souls to the movement of a great clock – this, incidentally, is one of the first ever references to mechanically chiming clocks in Europe, and I imagine Siger and Aquinas to be like the figures found on a giant medieval timepiece, who whirr and slide forward on the hour to strike the bell in unison. As one of his Penguin editors, Mark Musa, notes, Bride (Church) and Bridegroom (Christ) are entirely appropriate in the religious context, but Dante goes out of his way to sexualise them; ‘the terms used to suggest the physical workings of the clock carry strongly erotic overtones’ and the theological and sensual aspects ‘create surprising interplay within the metaphor’. For Musa, this is ‘the most spiritually erotic closing to all of the one hundred cantos of the Divine Comedy’, and it seems to me to realise and instantiate the erotic potentials hinted at in passing or invoked only to be dismissed elsewhere in the Commedia, time and eternity fused together as in the sexual act.


Paradiso X 133-148




so: passing out of the night-shadow cast by the earth

perfectly epicentred in its Ptolemaic space

because now arisen to the sphere of the Sun

suddenly            to be surrounded by 2 rings of lights

12 rotating lights more dazzling-bright

      themselves than the Sun

            clockwise ((( & counter-clockwise )))

alternately together horizontal vertical &

dazzling as Spectrolab nitesun XPMs slung from circling Apaches

         singing & turning like pedagogo girls in precise ballata

so that Beatrice was driven for the 1st & only time from my mind

which was                   smilingly just                              as she wished

I heard the voice        held      beheld            the radiance of the Wise

& bedazzled light-blind I saw among them finally

that spirit who taught in the Alley of Straw

subtle Averroean       defender

of philosophical method

Siger de Brabant

who dared doubt the immortality of the soul

who believed the world had existed from eternity

who stressed political justice in the secular world

exposing or is it espousing

 insidiously logical truths

silogizzó invidiosi veri  who earned the wrath

& Dante suggests       the likely envy too

of the holy dottore

himself his 219 propositions condemned as heretical

who was besieged on all sides

who mourned that death should be so slow to come

and was murdered by his secretary

probably some kind of put-up job

& who Dante eclectically sets side by side with Aquinas

his old adversary

on top of his clock

to strike





& now as the tower-clock summons us will call

at the hour when the Bride is roused from her bed

mussed with her matin/g song her Bridegroom love


woos as one part pulls & other part pushes in

chiming not a tin note but soul-sweet tingel-tangel

that now the spirit (s)well & ready does tumesce–


so in its full splendour I was witness to that wheel

gyring & rendering voice to voice ply on play

& in a sweet conchord that never can be grasped


except there               where ecstasy in-evers all



John Goodby recently became  Professor of Arts and Culture at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a poet, critic, and translator, and an authority on the work of Dylan Thomas, whose Collected Poems he edited in 2014. His poetry books include Illennium (Shearsman, 2010) and The No Breath (Red Ceilings, 2017), and he has published translations of Soleiman Adel Guemar (with Tom Cheesman), Heine, Pasolini and Reverdy. With Lyndon Davies he ran the Hay Poetry Jamborees 2009-12 and edited the anthology The Edge of Necessary: innovative Welsh poetry 1966-2018 (Aquifer, 2018).



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