From shore they well may glimpse the bottom, but not once out upon the open sea

A passage of Dante’s (Paradiso XIX 40-66) I was reminded of while reading of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, partially for the ocean metaphor and partially for the intellectual humility (whether taken in a religious sense or otherwise). Here are Charles Singleton’s prose – because it is clearest – and Robert Hollander’s verse versions (online here). The Italian is at bottom.

Then it began, “He that turned His compass round the limit of the world, and within it marked out so much both hidden and revealed, could not so imprint His power on all the universe that His word should not remain in infinite excess; and this is certified by that first proud one [Lucifer], who was the highest of all creatures and who, through not awaiting light, fell unripe; from which it is plain that every lesser nature is too scant a vessel for that Good which has no limit and measures Itself by Itself. Thus your vision, which must needs be one of the rays of the Mind with which all things are replete, cannot of its own nature be of such power that it should not perceive its origin to be far beyond all that is apparent to it. Therefore the sight that is granted to your world penetrates within the Eternal Justice as the eye into the sea; which, though from the shore it can see the bottom, in the open sea it sees it not, and none the less it is there, but the depth conceals it. There is no light unless it comes from that serene which is never clouded, else is it darkness, either shadow of the flesh or its poison.


Then it began: ‘He who with His compass
drew the boundaries of the world and then, within them,
created distinctions, both hidden and quite clear,
‘did not imprint His power so deep
throughout the universe that His Word
would not with infinite excess surpass His making.
‘In proof of this, the first and prideful being,
who was created highest of all creatures,
by not waiting for the light, plummeted unripe.
‘And thus it is clear that every lesser nature
is too small a vessel for that goodness
which has no limit, which is measured by itself alone.
‘Thus your vision, which must be
but a single ray of many in the mind
of Him of whom all things are full,
‘by its nature must not have such power
that it should not perceive its source
as lying far beyond all it can see.
‘Thus, the vision granted to your world
may make its way into eternal justice
as deep as eyes may penetrate the sea.
‘From shore they well may glimpse the bottom,
but not once out upon the open sea,
and yet it is there, hidden in the depths.
‘No light is never overcast unless it comes
from that clear sky which always shines. All others
darken in the shadow or the bane of flesh.

and the Italian:

Poi cominciò: “Colui che volse il sesto
a lo stremo del mondo, e dentro ad esso
distinse tanto occulto e manifesto,

non poté suo valor sì fare impresso
in tutto l’universo, che ‘l suo verbo
non rimanesse in infinito eccesso.

E ciò fa certo che ‘l primo superbo,
che fu la somma d’ogne creatura,
per non aspettar lume, cadde acerbo;

e quinci appar ch’ogne minor natura
è corto recettacolo a quel bene
che non ha fine e sé con sé misura.

Dunque vostra veduta, che convene
essere alcun de’ raggi de la mente
di che tutte le cose son ripiene,

non pò da sua natura esser possente
tanto, che suo principio non discerna
molto di là da quel che l’è parvente.

Però ne la giustizia sempiterna
la vista che riceve il vostro mondo,
com’ occhio per lo mare, entro s’interna;

che, ben che da la proda veggia il fondo,
in pelago nol vede; e nondimeno
èli, ma cela lui l’esser profondo.

Lume non è, se non vien dal sereno
che non si turba mai; anzi è tenèbra
od ombra de la carne o suo veleno.

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