Paradiso Paradiso Canto I (Ascent to First Heaven): Summary
Enter: Heaven. As we open the third and last canticle of Dante's Comedy, Dante is flying towards Heaven (or Paradise), with Beatrice alongside.
He sees some amazing sights along the way. In fact, it's so amazing that any mortal who sees such things would immediately forget them upon landing back on earth.
But Dante is going to do the impossible, to record (through his poetry) all this impossible stuff he sees as he journeys through Heaven. Dante is trying to put in human terms something human beings never see. In other words, he's doing what no other poet has ever done. This is a very important concept.
It makes sense to ask for a little help in doing the impossible. So Dante promptly asks the god and protector of all poets to let him deserve his "loved laurel." Which is poet-speak for "Help me, Lord!" Dante asks Apollo to enter into his chest and "within [him] breathe [his] power," to allow him to show "a shadow of the blessed realm." On top of that, argues Dante, writing this poem should make Apollo happy since it means that a mortal might finally be worthy of the Apollonian crown of laurel branches.
Back to the story. It's around noontime, according to the sun.
Beatrice turns her face toward the approaching sun and stares directly into the light. (She can do this because she's not mortal.)
Dante decides he wants to be special too and copies her movements. He explains that he can also stare into the sun because when one is this close to Heaven – the "true home" of mankind – such things are allowed.
Of course he can't do it for long, since he's not immortal. But he stares long enough to see it shining brightly. He's so overcome by the sun's brilliance that it seems to him that "day had been added to day" as if a second sun had suddenly sprung up.
When Dante cannot stand the brightness anymore, he turns his gaze towards Beatrice. As he watches her, he gets spiritually invigorated. He compares watching her to Glaucus's transformation from a lowly fisherman into a sea god. (In other words, watching Beatrice makes him feel godlike.)
In the sunlight, Dante feels so good that he doesn't know whether he is only "the part of me that You created last" – pure soul – or still a soul housed within a body. Only God knows.
As he flies upward, he hears the music of spheres around him.
(Quick theology lesson: medieval philosophers believed in a geocentric universe, with the Earth at the center of the universe and all the other stars and planets revolving around it. The revolution of each planet, which Dante calls "spheres" or "Paradises," creates a different musical note. So the sky is always full of music, commonly known as the "music of the spheres.")
Caught up in all this light and music, Dante becomes curious about where they originate. He's about to ask Beatrice when she opens her mouth to tell him. Beatrice tells him that he's still "obtuse" (read: a little thick) with "false imagining." He's actually not on earth like he thinks, but like lightning, flying up towards Heaven.
You say, "Like lightning? Lightning doesn't go up!" Well, Medieval philosophers believed that the universe was made up of five elements. The northern hemisphere of the planet (where Jerusalem sits) is all earth. The southern hemisphere (where the mountain of Purgatory is located) is all water. This planet is surrounded by a layer of air, then higher up a layer of fire, before giving way to the ether of the heavens, where God resides. So here, Dante and Beatrice are ascending through the layer of fire. Lightning, it was believed, is an unnatural phenomenon because it comes down, instead of going up. Why would it go up? Because it is trying to reach its creator, God.
Dante is still not satisfied. He doesn't understand how he's rising when he is a heavier body than the spheres of air and fire.
Beatrice sighs like a frustrated mother. She explains that everything in the universe arranges itself in a certain order, as God decrees. Everything is placed at different distances from God, some nearer, some farther. Thus, when each thing moves "across the mighty sea of being," it is motivated by a desire to be close to God. This desire affects everything, even things without souls. This desire, explains Beatrice, is what is shooting Dante like an arrow towards the highest heaven, called the Primum Mobile – the only sphere of Heaven that doesn't revolve. In other words, he's being drawn toward God.
But, Beatrice says, many times people are distracted by earthly pleasures and deaf to God's calling, so they stray from the path towards Him. This is just like lightning, which unnaturally falls instead of rising.
Beatrice sternly tells Dante that he shouldn't be surprised that he's flying; it would be more surprising were he still on earth after being purified in Purgatory.