Current Issue               Submissions               Round Table





IN DANTE'S COSMOLOGY, PURGATORIO is the realm of hope.Virgil explains to Dante early in their journey through the three realms that Inferno is the realm of despair, hopelessness. Likewise, if paradoxically, Paradiso is a realm without hope, because it is the realm of blessedness where all hope is fulfilled. Fate is fixed eternally in Paradiso. Only in Purgatorio is hope possible because it is the realm that most closely mirrors human existence. Purgatorio is a process; change is possible, in fact, it is necessary. Time functions in Purgatorio. Souls there do not despair because they know that, however arduous their sufferings there may be, and some are every bit as strenuous as those in Inferno, they are finite: they will eventually come to an end. But more that this: the fate of shades in Purgatorio is not absolutely determined. Prayer is efficacious; God is listening.

Purgatorio is also the realm of art. The process of purgation is dialectical: shades are goaded by physical punishment and the mental torment of remembering their guilty actions in life; they are encouraged to persevere by meditating on examples of the opposite of their sinful actions. These examples of virtuous behavior are conveyed through works of art, most often sculpture and song. In one case, when the weight of guilt bows the heads of the penitents to the ground, the bas-reliefs are carved into the stone beneath their feet.

Near the summit of Purgatorio Dante and Virgil experience what feels to them like an earthquake. They discover that this disruption, and the resounding shout heard simultaneously, means that a soul that has toiled on the mountain for 900 years is at last fully purged and free to ascend to Paradiso. It is the moment all believers hope for: the moment of salvation. From this moment onward Dante and Virgil are joined by the newly purified soul, a poet of the late Roman period, Statius. Statius believed, and through him Dante believed, that Virgil had prophesied the coming of Christ. Armed with this belief Statius had the courage to defy Roman law and become a Christian, though he kept his conversion secret until his deathbed, one of the causes for his long stint on the mountain. In such reverence does Statius hold Virgil that he admits he would be willing to remain in Purgatorio another year if he could but speak to the master: the supreme accolade. When he discovers that he is, indeed, in Virgil's presence, he bows to the ground to kiss his feet.

                   — KBH

From Canto 21

But, if you know, tell why a while ago
         The mountain shook, and why all seemed to cry
         As one, down to its watered base below."
His question threaded thus the needle's eye
         Of my desire and merely with the hope
         Of knowing made the thirst I felt less dry.
Whence he: "The holy rule upon this slope
         Does not within its order suffer flaws,
         Or aught that lies outside its custom's scope.
Here free from every change, what Heaven draws
         Out of itself, then takes up in its store,
         Just that, and nothing else, can be a cause.
And thus the hail, the snow, the rainfall's pour,
         The dew, the frost may fall on any tier
         Up to the three-stepped stairway, but no more.
Here, thick or thin, the clouds do not appear,
         Nor lightning-flash, nor Thaumas' daughter bright,
         Who yonder often seems to change her sphere.
Nor does dry vapor rise beyond the height
         Of those three steps of which I spoke just now,
         On which the feet of Peter's vicar light.
Quakes great or small may shake a lower brow,
         But from the hidden winds the earth may shroud
         It's never trembled here, I don't know how.
It shakes here when some spirit of our crowd
         Feels cleansed to rise or stirs to climb, now free,
         And then such shouts as these will follow loud.
The will alone gives proof of purity,
         Which shall, now that it's free to change its inn,
         Surprise the soul and help it will," said he.
"Though it had willed, desire won't let will win;
         God's justice sets desire — against one's will —
         Towards penance as it had been set towards sin.
And I have lain within this pain until
         Just now, five hundred years or more, when I
         First felt free will to find a better sill.
You therefore felt the quake and heard nearby
         The pious souls sing praises to the Lord
         About the mount — may He soon raise them high!"
And thus he spoke. Now since our drinks afford
         More pleasure insofar as thirst is great,
         I cannot say what profit there was stored.
"What net ensnares you here I now see straight,
         And how it's torn," that wise one answered so,
          "And why it quakes, and why your joyful state.
Now, should it please you, I would like to know
         Who you once were and in your words behold
         Why here you've lain, as ages come and go."
"When help from Heaven's King made Titus bold
         So that good man avenged the wounded frame,
         Whence issued forth the blood that Judas sold,
With that most lasting and most honored name
         I dwelt beyond," replied that spirit now,
          "Not yet with faith, but with sufficient fame.
My vocal spirit was most sweet; that's how
         Rome drew me forth once from Toulouse to stay,
         Where I deserved the myrtle round my brow.
And men still call me 'Statius' today;
         I sang of Thebes, of great Achilles too,
         But with the second load fell on the way.
The sparks that kindled all my ardor flew
         From godlike flames, and they by now have lit
         More than a thousand poets' fires anew.
I speak of the Aeneid; dam was it
         And nurse to me from when my verse began;
         Without it, mine would not be worth a whit.
And to have lived when Virgil was a man,
         I'd yield to one more sun than is the fee
         I owe before I issue from this ban."
These words turned Virgil with a look to me
         That said, albeit silently: "Keep still";
         But strength of will cannot do all, you see,
For tears and laughter follow so the rill
         Of feeling, whence they spring up to the brink,
         In those most frank they follow least the will.
When I but smiled like one who gives a wink,
         That shade fell still and watched my eyes awhile,
         Where the expression is most fixed, I think.
"So may your work end well upon this isle,
         Why did your face," he thereupon replied,
          "Show me just now the flashing of a smile?"
And caught between the one and other side
          (The one had silenced me, the other bade
         That I should answer him), I therefore sighed.
My Master understood; "Don't be afraid
         To talk," he said, "but speak and answer to
         The things that he so earnestly has prayed."
"It may be that you marvel at my clue
         — The smile I gave — O ancient soul," said I,
          "But I'd have yet more wonder seize on you.
This spirit who directs my eyes on high
         Is just that Virgil whence your strength was bred
         To sing of gods and men in days gone by.
If you believe some other cause instead
         Lay in my smile, dismiss it as untrue;
         Believe it was the words that you had said."
He stooped to clasp my Teacher's feet but drew
         A quick response: "O brother, do forbear,
         For you're a shade, and see a shade here too."
And rising, he: "Now may you be aware
         Of what a measure of warm love I bring,
         When I forget that we are empty air,
And treat a shadow like a solid thing."

In the circle of the gluttonous Dante has met his contemporary, friend, and fellow poet, Forese Donati, who joins the parade of poets long enough to point out to them certain other poets. Among them is Bonagiunta Orbicciani da Lucca, who praises Dante's "sweet new style" of poetry for its expression of genuine feelings, avoiding the pretentious verses of the "professional poets" of the day.

From Canto 24:

But tell me if I see the author of
         The rhymes brought newly forth that thus begin:
         O maids who have intelligence of love?"
"When Love has breathed in me, then I have been
         One who takes note," I said, "and at his lead
         Goes setting forth what he dictates within."
He: "Friend, I see what knot would once impede
         The Notary and me, Guittone too,
         In coming to the sweet new style I heed.
I clearly see how close your quills pursue
         All that to which dictating love gives vent,
         Which surely did not come with those we knew.
One set on searching further sees, intent,
         No more between the one and other style."
         And he was silent then as if content.

As the three continue their journey, Dante asks another of his endless questions. He wishes to know how the soul is united with the body. At first glance the question seems inappropriate here, best left for the philosophers and theologians Dante will meet in Paradiso. The poets give their answers here because their explanation of the symbiosis of body and soul is analogous to their understanding of the relationship of matter to meaning in poetry. Virgil gives his answer by another analogy, recalling the Greek myth of Meleagros. Statius gives a more detailed explanation based on early medieval science, ranging over topics as diverse as where babies come from and the physics of rainbows.

From Canto 25:

"Recall how Meleager once was seen
         To perish, as an ember was consumed,
         And this," he said, "won't be so hard to glean.
Think how your every movement is resumed,
         As in the glass your image moves abreast,
         And what seems hard is easily assumed.
But that in your desire you may find rest,
         Here's Statius; I call on him and sue
         That by this healer now your wounds be dressed."
"If I interpret the eternal view,"
         So Statius replied, "while you are near,
         Excuse me, but I can't say 'no' to you."
And then he started: "If your mind should hear
         My words, my son, and keep what they receive,
         Their light will make the 'how' you ask for clear.
The perfect blood, which thirsty veins will leave
         When it has not been drunk, and which remains
         Like food that from the table you retrieve,
Finds in the heart informing pow'r it gains
         To shape the body's members, like the flood
         That flows, becoming limbs, throughout your veins.
Once more digested, downwards it will scud
         To what is best unnamed, and thence to where
         It drips in nature's vase on other's blood.
The one is mingled with the other there,
         With one disposed to suffer, one to act,
         Since from a perfect place there springs its share.
This joined to that, it starts to work in fact
         By clotting first, then quickening the store
         Of what as matter it had made compact.
The active force becomes a soul once more,
         Like that of plants, yet differing indeed:
         While this still journeys, that is at the shore.
It acts so that it moves and senses need,
         Like sponges, and forms organs then by art
         For faculties of which it is the seed.
The virtue from the generator's heart
         Will now expand and now distend therefrom,
         Where Nature well provides for every part.
How speaking ones from animals may come
         You don't yet see; one wiser would commit
         An error here-this point made him succumb-
For, in his teaching, from the soul he split
         Potential intellect who could not show
         That any organ was assumed by it.
Unlock your breast for truth to come and know
         That, when articulation of the brain
         Has been perfected in the embryo,
The Primal Mover turns to it with plain
         Delight in Nature's art, and thus breathes in
         A new-made soul, one filled with might and main.
What it finds active there it draws within
         Its substance, making thus the soul be one,
         Which lives, perceives, returns to self therein.
But that my words may give you less a stun,
         Behold the solar heat that turns to wine
         When joined with juices that the vine lets run.
When Lachesis has no more thread to twine,
         The soul is loosed from flesh, but bears en route,
         In potency, the human and divine.
And all the other powers now are mute,
         Though memory, intelligence, and will
         Are in their action even more acute.
It does not rest, but falls of self until
         It wondrously alights on either shore
         And there first learns which road to travel still.
When circumscribed by space as once before,
         The forming power then will shine around
         The shape and size its living members wore.
And, as when moisture in the air is found,
         It is adorned with diverse colors where
         Another's rays reflecting there abound,
So also in this place the nearby air
         Will shape itself so as to form a frame
         By virtue of the soul that's halted there.
And as the fire is followed by the flame,
         No matter where the fire may move to light,
         So soul is followed by new form the same.
And since it has its semblance thus, it's right
         To call it "shade"; from air it fashions then
         The organs for each sense, including sight.
By this we speak, by this we laugh, like men;
         By this we weep the tears and sigh the sighs
         You may have heard around the mount. And when
The soul's desires and other passions rise,
         Affecting us, our shadows then will wear
         These shapes, and that's the cause of your surprise."

The trio comes upon a wall of fire in which the lustful are purged. Here they meet more poets: Guido Guinizzelli, who points out another whom he calls il miglior fabbro, the better maker: the provencal troubadour, Arnaut Daniel.

         If you might wish to know our names, then I'd
         Not know them all, nor is there time to tell.
Of mine, indeed, you shall be satisfied:
         I'm Guido Guinizzell', who here make purge
         Since I felt full remorse before I died."
As when Lycurgus sang his sorry dirge,
         Two sons rejoiced to see their mother's face,
         So I did, though so high I did not surge
To hear him named, the father I embrace
         As many others-all my betters-do,
         Who always rhymed their love with sweetest grace.
I did not speak nor hear a long time through,
         But went in thought and gazed on him, though just
         For all the fire drew no more near thereto.
I'd fed my sight on him and found I must
         Yet offer him my service every way,
         With affirmations that would make one trust.
And he to me: "From what I hear you say,
         You leave a trace in me and one so clear
         As Lethe cannot dim nor take away.
But if just now your words swore truly here,
         Say why in looks and gaze you did not shrink
         From showing me thereby you hold me dear."
"As long as modern use shall last, I think
         The verses that you wrote, so sweetly sung,
         Will render dear," I said, "their very ink."
"O brother, I can show you on this rung,"
         Thus pointing out a soul beyond, he said,
          "A better craftsman of the mother tongue.
For he transcends all am'rous verses read
         And romance tales-whatever fools may plead
         Who think Limoges's bard excels instead.
To rumor, not to truth, such ones give heed,
         And settle their opinions thus before
         They've listened first to art or reason's lead.
So with Guittone many did of yore,
         Who, cry to cry, prized nothing but his wits,
         Until, with most, the truth would win the floor.
Now if your ample privilege permits
         Your journeying up to that cloister in
         Which Christ as abbot of the college sits,
A paternoster say for me therein,
         As far as in this world we need such aid,
         Where we have no more power now to sin."
Perhaps, then, ceding to another shade
         Who followed near, he vanished through the flame,
         The way fish seeking deeper waters fade.
Then to the one just pointed out I came
         And told him my desire prepared inside
         A gracious place of welcome for his name.
Beginning then, he willingly replied:
          "Now your polite request has pleased me so
         That thus I neither can nor wish to hide.
I am Arnaut; in tears and song I go.
         Contrite, I see my former folly's bane
         And see with joy the day I hope to know.
And now I pray you by the Power's reign
         That guides you to the summit of the stair,
         While there is time, be heedful of my pain."
And then he hid within the purging flare.

Dante, still accompanied by Statius and Virgil, will follow Arnaut into the refining fire for final purification in preparation for the arrival of Beatrice. Dante must be purged of any lustful thoughts springing from his natural desire for the earthly woman in order to see her as she is in Paradiso, the embodiment of revelation, whose presence is required if Dante is to achieve the ultimate beatific vision. Virgil, while permitted to view the splendor of Eden, may not accompany Dante into Paradiso. Neither will the poetics of love which meant so much to all the poets Dante meets in Purgatorio serve to express the higher insight. In effect, Dante bids farewell to epic verse and amatory lyricism, albeit the fondest farewell, at the summit of Purgatorio. He will strive throughout Paradiso to capture as much of the transcendent realm as he can in words that translate in immanent reality. He acknowledges that this attempt will, must, ultimately fail.

      — Stephen W. Arndt, Translator