May 1999

W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin W.S. Merwin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Carrier of Ladders.  He has written over twenty books of translations, several collections of prose, and numerous collections of poetry.  His first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1952.  Recent books include The River Sound (Knopf 1999) and The Folding Cliffs (1998).  He lives in Haiku, Hawaii.

   W.S. Merwin translates Canto XXXI of Dante's Purgatorio
Purgatory XXXI    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio read by Robert Pinsky

"Oh you on that side of the sacred river,"
       turning the point of her words towards me
       when the edge itself has seemed sharp to me,

she began again, going on without pausing,
       "Say, say whether this is true: your confession
       must be joined to such accusation."

What strength I had was so bewildered that
       my voice stirred and was done before it
       was set free of the organs that made it.

She scarcely waited, and then said, "What do you
       think?  Answer me, for the water has not
       cancelled the sad memories in you yet."

Bewilderment and fear mingled together
       forced out of my mouth such a "yes" that
       to hear it one would have had to see it.

As a crossbow, when it is drawn too far,
       breaks both the cord and the bow so that
       the shaft strikes the target with less power,

so I broke under that heavy burden,
       with tears and sighs out of me pouring
       and my voice collapsed in its opening.

At that she said to me, "In your desires of me
       which to the love of that good were leading you
       beyond which there is nothing to aspire to,

what ditches dug across the way, or chains
       did you come to, that forced you to abandon
       any hope that you had of going on,

and what attractions or advantages
       were visible on the brows of the others
       so that you had no choice but to loiter there?"

After I had drawn a bitter sigh
       I had scarcely any voice to answer,
       and my lips formed it with great labor.

In tears I said, "Things of the moment
       with their false pleasure turned my steps away
       at once, after your face was hidden."

And she, "If you had said nothing or denied
       what you confess, your guilt would be noted
       nevertheless, by such a judge is it known!

But when the accusation of the sin
       bursts from the cheeks of the accused, in our court
       it turns the grindstone against the edge again.

All the same, so that now you may bear
       the shame of your mistakes, and when you hear
       the sirens another time you may be stronger,

lay down the sowing of tears and listen
       so you may hear how my flesh in the tomb
       should have led you in the other direction.

Never did nature or art show you such
       beauty as the lovely members in which
       I was enclosed, and they are crumbled in earth.

And if the highest beauty, with my dying,
       so failed you, what mortal thing after that
       should have drawn you into desiring it?

Indeed at the first arrow of deceptive
       things you should have risen and followed after
       me, who was of that kind then no longer.

Your wings should not have been weighed down by any
       girl or other vanity so briefly
       known, waiting to shot repeatedly.

Two or three times a fledgling bird will wait
       but in vain is the net spread or arrow shot
       before the eyes of the bird when it has grown."

As children stand feeling ashamed, without
       a word, their eyes on the ground, listening,
       admitting what they have done and repenting,

so I stood there, and she said, "Since what you
       hear is painful, lift up your beard and you
       will find that what you see is even more so."

With less resistance the massive oak is
       uprooted, whether by the wind out of our own
       regions or that from the land of Iarbas,

I lifted my chin then at her command,
       and when she summoned my face by the beard
       I felt the full venom of the argument.

And when my face had opened, my eyes
       came to see that those primal creatures
       had paused in the scattering of flowers,

and my eyes, when they were still uncertain
       of what they saw, saw that Beatrice had turned
       toward the beast that in two natures is one person.

Under her veil and across the stream, it seemed
       to me she surpassed her former self even more
       than she surpassed the others when she was here.

The nettle of the remorse so stung me there
       that the thing among all others that had most
       bent me to love it, I hated worse.

Such recognition ate at my heart that
       I fell, overcome, and what I became then
       she knows who was the reason for it.

Then, when my heart gave my outward sense again
       to me, I saw the lady I had found alone
       above me, and she said, "Hold onto me! Hold onto me!"

She had drawn me into the river up to my
       throat, and pulling me after her, she
       was moving, light as a shuttle, over the water.

When I was near the blessed shore I heard
       "Purge me" chanted so sweetly that it
       cannot be written or even remembered.

The beautiful lady opened her arms,
       embraced my head and drew me under
       so that I had to swallow the water.

Then she brought me out and, bathed now, led me
       into the dance of the beautiful four
       and each of them held an arm over me.

"We are nymphs here and are stars in heaven.
       Before Beatrice went down into the world
       we were ordained to be her handmaidens.

We will take you to her eyes. But in the happy
       light within them, the three on the other
       side will sharpen yours, for they see more deeply."

So they began to sing, and they drew me
       with them to the breast of the griffin
       where Beatrice stood, turned in our direction,

and said "Be careful not to look away now.
       We have brought you before the emeralds
       from which Love shot its arrows once at you."

A thousand desires hotter than a flame
       held my eyes fixed on those shining eyes
       that were fixed on the griffin the whole time.

Like the sun in a mirror, not otherwise,
       the double beast was shining in her eyes
       now one with nature, now with the other.

Think, reader, whether I marveled, seeing
       the object remain still in itself, and
       only the image of it changing.

While my soul, full of amazement and joy,
       was tasting that nourishment which always
       is enough, and for which one remains hungry,

the other three, who by their bearing showed
       their higher order, came dancing forward
       to the angelic measure their feet followed.

"Turn, Beatrice, turn your holy eyes,"
       they were saying, "to your faithful one who
       has traveled so many steps to see you.

Out of your grace, grace us by unveiling
       your mouth to him, so that he may perceive
       the second beauty which you are concealing."

Oh splendor of the living eternal light,
       who has ever grown so pale in the shadow
       of Parnassus, or has drunk from its well so

as not to have a mind that seems encumbered,
       trying to render you as you appeared
       there shaded by the harmonies of heaven,

when you disclosed yourself to the open air?

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W.S. Merwin: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review