Divine Comedy, Book Three, Paradise: Canto 25 The Examination of Hope
In this Canto, Dante is blessed by Saint John for his labors and for his hope.
This Canto is called “The Examination of Hope” not because hope is being held to account for itself or because the narrator is being tested but because in this Canto, as in the original, the qualities of hope are discussed in detail.
What is hope? Can it save us or does it doom us to hang on to things for much longer than we should?
There are myths and stories I turn around in my thoughts on a pretty regular basis. One of them is the story of Pandora’s Box. I read this story out of one of those comprehension boxes they used to set on shelves in school classrooms to encourage kids to read at whatever level they could attain.
Pandora was Zeus’s first daughter. She was fashioned out of clay and was sent to marry into the family of Prometheus — who had enraged Zeus by stealing fire from the Gods to give it to humanity.
Pandora was sent to marry into this family as a kind of booby trap.
Her dowry included a beautiful box. It was ornately and gracefully carved and also fitted with silver and gold chasing to enhance its beauty. It was a lovely thing. Zeus gave Pandora the key and told her, in fact made her promise, never to open the box. No matter what — do not open the box.
Pandora was made of clay but she was still her own person. She was a curious, bright girl who found it difficult to leave things alone.
But she saw her intended husband and fell in love.
She decided to give the key to her husband, trusting that his willpower would be stronger than her own.
They lived together happily for a while and Zeus, well he was pissed off again because his hard-hearted plan, to punish a good man with a bad wife, had failed and failed because of love.
It failed for a while anyway.
Eventually, Pandora could stand it no longer. She felt she’d die if she didn’t find out what was in that box. She persuaded her husband, she coaxed, she cajoled, she pouted and bargained and raged. Nothing worked.
Pandora’s husband loved her and he was wise. He knew better than to defy Zeus twice. He liked his life and wanted things to remain as they were but he also loved his wife and that meant he trusted her.
So he didn’t even think about hiding the key to the box.
One day, when Pandora’s husband was in the fields, Pandora’s curiosity began to itch at her. It itched and tickled and scratched until eventually she could bear it no longer.
She got the key, and opened the box.
Slowly, she eased the heavy lid open, and peeked inside.
When she did this, the lid flew open as though it was under pressure, it popped open like a giant cork. It sprang open and flew back and the contents of the box flew out into the air around Pandora.
Out flew Hate, Envy, Disease, Crime, Violence, Cruelty and Hunger.
Out flew every bad thing humanity would ever suffer.
Pandora, even while this was happening, was scrambling to get the lid closed. She grabbed it and pushed with all her might and did manage to close the lid but only after every single thing inside the box had already escaped.
Everything but one.
When Pandora’s husband came home, he found her crying in their bedroom. He went to her and took her into his arms to comfort her and asked her what had happened.
She explained to him about the box and wept afresh with the shame of what she’d done.
He pulled the box, which was on the floor next to the bed, over to them and put it between them.
He said “well, we have a really nice box.” And then, before she could stop him, he lifted the lid and looked inside.
In the bottom of the box, was a small, brown, butterfly. It fluttered up, looked at the astonished couple and spoke its name to them before it flew away to join the other traits and escape into the world, to spread to all humanity. What was it called?
I think about that story quite a lot. And when I do, I wonder, is hope a blessing? Does it make up for all the terrible things in the world? Or is is another curse leveled at humanity by an angry deity?
I believe it is often both and sometimes it’s both at the same time.
But it is at least as good as it is bad. And usually better.
In this Canto, Dante hopes the accomplishment of finishing this, his great poetic work, will convince the authorities in Florence to end his exile.
I have no such purpose and feel, somewhat, that putting a Canto set in Paradise to a purpose is contradictory to the purpose of the place.
In my version of the Canto we examine the qualities of hope. The differences between my version and Dante’s is that in my version, hope is not harnessed to any specific purpose. There are no Christian saints in the picture and my narrator, at the end of the Canto, does not go blind. (not even temporarily.)
As I said, the easiest thing to do on a train is sleep. Gradually I did begin to drowse and in that half-dreaming state remembered where Dante had been led along this upward road.
No John the Baptist for me, no Saint illuminated and beatific would lead my through an examination of hope. There was only my persistence.
Hope is not a lovely thing. Hope is ragged and sweaty and determined to carry on.
Hope gathers up its things and staggers on down the road, hope stumbles forward no matter what or who held it back or promised it heaven last week.
Hope endures all.
Inside the chest Pandora opened, only hope remained. How many times had I considered that image? The open box with this one curse underneath them all, the curse that is a blessing because someday — there might be a someday after all.
I no longer admired the true lovers, did not long to prove my worthiness. False love was far behind me and true love still a little way ahead.
Hope is the beloved, it is the ring of the telephone, the sound of a key in a door.
Hope is the invitation to the dance. It gives you no special honors, bestows no higher rank — the age of Catholicism is passed and yet hope lives on.
We move as one through this era, watching the news and hearing the stories that tear at the heart. We say to each other, “the world has gone mad” but I tell you, the world is no different than it ever was. We live and love and change our circumstances, and we are changed, if we allow it.
The train moved through the forest now, pale green leaves sheltered dark, slender trunks, new ferns grew like arrows in the earth, soon to unfurl and relax into graceful arcs.
We moved toward Spring, toward life toward a true and useful love — because that’s what life really does, even in Paradise