When we were past the threshold of the gate
         Which the soul’s wrongful love may never use
         Since such love makes the crooked way seem straight,
         I heard by its loud clanging the gate close:
5         And if I had turned my eyes back to it,
         What fit excuse could I find for my fault?
         We climbed the rockface through a zigzag cleft
         Which pitches from one side to the other
         Like a wave cresting in and rolling out.
10       "Here we must exercise some skill and care,"
         My guide began, "to stay close, now this side
         And now that, to the low receding edge."
         And this task made our steps so slow that now
         The waning moon had once again gone back
15       To bed, to sink into its morning rest,
         Before we issued from that needle’s eye.
         When we were free and out into the open,
         Up where the mount surged back to form a ledge,
         We halted — I worn out and the two of us
20       Unsure of our way — there on that level place
         Lonelier than a trail through empty deserts.
         From the edge which verges out on vacant space
         To the base of the sheer cliff soaring upward
         Measures three times the length of a man’s body;
25       And as far as my eyes could wing their way,
         Now equally to the left, now to the right,
         So wide the terrace seemed to stretch before me.
         From that spot we had yet to take a step
         When I discerned that all the inner cliff-ring,
30       Which rose so steep there was no way to scale it,
         Was pure white marble, and so decorated
         With carvings that they would have put to shame
         Not only Polycletus but nature too.
         The angel who came down to earth decreeing
35       The peace which, deeply mourned for many years,
         Has opened heaven from its long interdict
         Appeared before us there so faithfully
         Chiseled out in his soft-spoken bearing
         That he did not seem to be a silent image:
40       One would have sworn that he was saying "Ave,"
         Since she who turned the key to open up
         Love on high was also imaged there,
         And her attitude appeared stamped with the words:
         "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," as sharply
45       As a figure is engraved on sealing wax.
         "You need not fix your mind on one place only,"
         My gentle master stated, while he made me
         Stand on the side where the heart within us beats.
         At that I shifted my sight and gazed further
50       Past Mary, in the same right-hand direction
         Where he stood who had urged me on to look,
         To see another story cut in stone;
         So I crossed in front of Virgil and approached
         To have the scene disclosed before my eyes.
55       There carved upon the surface of the marble
         Were cart and oxen pulling the holy ark,
         To warn men not to overreach their charge.
         At the lead, seven choirs in separate files
         Appeared: one of my senses argued, "No,"
60       The other answered, "Yes, they really sing!"
         In the same way, the smoking from the incense
         Pictured there made my two eyes and nose
         Disagree between a yes and no.
         There in the vanguard of the sacred coffer,
65       Dancing with robes hitched up, the humble psalmist
         So proved himself both more and less than king.
         Opposite, depicted at the window
         Of a stately palace, Michal watched him dance,
         So like a woman filled with wrath and scorn.
70       I stirred my feet from the spot where I stood
         To study close at hand another story
         Which I saw shining white just past Michal.
         There was told the tale of the high glory
         Won by the Roman prince whose worthiness
75       Moved Gregory to make his mighty conquest:
         I here speak of the Emperor Trajan.
         And there was at his bridle a poor widow
         Held in a pose of weeping and distress.
         Surrounding him was shown a trampling press
80       Of horsemen, while eagles stitched in gold
         Waved in full view above them on the wind.
         Among them all the wretched woman seemed
         To cry, "Oh lord, take vengeance for my son
         Whose slaying has pierced my heart with sorrow."
85       And he appeared to answer her, "Now wait
         Until I shall return." And she: "My lord,"
         With urgent grief, "What if you don’t come back?"
         And he: "Whoever takes my place will act
         For me." And she: "What good shall someone else’s
90       Good deeds do you if you ignore your own?"
         To this he said, "Take comfort, since I must
         Fulfill my duty here before I leave:
         Justice claims it and pity holds me back."
         He in whose sight nothing is ever new
95       Created this art of visible speaking,
         Foreign to us who do not find it here.
         While I enjoyed myself with gazing on
         These images of high humility,
         Precious to look at for their Maker’s sake,
100      "Look over there," the poet murmured to me,
         "That throng of people walking with slow steps:
         They will direct us to the stairs on high."
         My eyes, happy to be full of wonder
         In seeing something new for which they yearn,
105     Surely were not slow to turn toward him.
         I would not have you, reader, in alarm
         Lose your good resolve when you now hear
         How God has willed that we should pay our debts.
         Pay no attention to the form of pain:
110     Think of the aftermath, think that the worst
         Will be that it will last till judgment day.
         "Master," I began, "what I make out
         Moving toward us does not look like people,
         But what I do not know — my sight’s so muddled!"
115      And he said to me, "The weighty condition
         Of their torment so bows them to the ground
         That my eyes first debated about them.
         "But peer there firmly and sort out by sight
         What approaches us beneath those boulders:
120      By now you see how each one beats his breast."
         O haughty Christians, woebegone, careworn,
         You, sickened in the insight of your minds,
         Who misplace all your trust in backward steps,
         Are you not aware that we are worms,
125      Born to become the angelic butterflies
         Which soar defenseless up toward the judgment?
         Why does your mind float proudly far aloft
         When you are merely like imperfect insects,
         Just as the larva lacks its final form?
130      Sometimes, in support of roof or ceiling,
         One sees a corbel shaped in a man’s figure
         With the knees hunched up against the chest,
         Which, while unreal, gives birth to real discomfort
         In someone seeing it: that’s how I saw,
135     When I took good care, how these souls were stooped.
         True, some were more pressed down and some were less
         If they had more or less weight on their backs,
         Yet even one who suffered most patiently
         Appeared to say through tears, "I can no more."

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