Dante, Purgatorio

Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy, #2)Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allen Mandelbaum begins his introduction to his wonderful translation thusly:

For the Virgil of Dante’s Purgatorio, “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII, 104-105). To find one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.The descent through Hell and ascent through the seven terraces of the Mount of Purgatory are the tale of that education of Dante’s hungering, longing, thirsting will.

Many commentators say that the Purgatorio is the most human canticle of the Divine Comedy because it alone takes place on earth—specifically on the mountain of Purgatory, which rises to the heavens at the opposite pole from Jerusalem in medieval cartography, and which was the last sight that greeted the living Ulysses on his doomed quest for knowledge in the Inferno. In line with this latter parable, Virgil cautions Dante against relying on reason, rather than seeing with the eye of faith, as they traverse the terraced mount:

“Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.

Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.”

The Purgatorio‘s spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem more “realistic,” in the sense of representing human norms, than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of we’re all fellow sufferers and pilgrims here similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a plane. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, Statius on the birth of souls, and more.

The long-awaited and climactic appearance, in the Earthly Paradise, of a Beatrice full of maternal anger amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that commentators must sometimes admit ignorance is a memorable moment, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante makes me wonder—and Mandelbaum does not clear this up, nor to my recollection does Dorothy L. Sayers in her translation and commentary—from whence Dante derives her spiritual authority, which he likens to that of Christ; he has boldly added a major figure to the Christian pantheon, drawn from his daily life.

The pageant in the Earthly Paradise that concludes the canticle is spectacular in its bravura imagery and that imagery’s encoded representation of Christian history. To my mind, however, it also shows the limits of the allegorical method, since the vehicles of its metaphors are simply fantastical, with none of the earthiness of Dante’s human figures: women dancing who are green, red, and white, thus representing certain virtues, for instance, or a chariot emblematizing the church drawn by a griffin standing for Christ. I’m sure I just lack the proper taste and knowledge to appreciate medieval art, but these passages (cantos XXVII-XXXIII) with their imagery mostly untethered from human reality struck me as a poetic anticipation of CGI.

Similarly, the poem’s long explanations of how shades can feel pain or how there can be wind in the Earthly Paradise feel to my post-Romantic sensibility, with its faith in open-ended symbolism, like an overindulged “world-building” impulse. What can I say? Dante is a genius, no doubt, but Joyce once hesitated between Shakespeare or Dante for his desert island book before finally deciding on “the Englishman”—whereas I would not hesitate at all.

On a happier note, before the parade in the Earthly Paradise begins, the Purgatorio is a poet’s canticle, full of artists and striking disquisitions on art. God, for one thing, is Himself an artist: He has carved imposing reliefs modeling humility and chastened pride into the mountain walls, representations so real that “even Nature, there, would feel defeated,” as they trick Dante into thinking he hears the songs and smells the smoke he only sees.

Dante compares himself to a child and Virgil to his mother; the heaven-bound poet Statius, paying tribute to Virgil, calls the Aeneid his nurse and mother. Poets honor their precursors in what Dante would boggle to hear contemporary critics call a queer genealogy. Would he be less comprehending at another modern critical tradition’s calling it a patriarchal one? Dante curses Eve for getting us evicted from Eden, and he dreams an alluring Siren—Virgil calls her “that ancient witch”—whose “belly” exudes a “stench”; to these wicked women Mary and Beatrice stand as antitypes, so that the moral cosmos is organized around poles of abstracted femininity.

The Troubadours, Dante’s predecessors in the beautiful new style of love poetry, are hailed in the appearance of the Provençal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out of the lust-purging fire:

“I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!”

The poets do allow, though, that the fame of art is fleeting:

“Your glory wears the color of the grass
that comes and goes; the sun that makes it wither
first drew it from the ground, still green and tender.”

Again, the poem’s theme is “the education of desire.” Virgil explains that human love and desire are, when misdirected by the bad exercise of free will, the sources of sin, even as they may the source of virtue. In a similar piece of psychological monism, Dante refutes Plato (and his inverted latter-day disciple Freud) in denying that there can be any division in the soul.

This theme is enacted by the poem’s structure: Dante allows us to understand that his strict narrative structure and verse form impose the discipline on art that will allow it to serve the end of virtue. Virgil advises Dante to use his will to choose between good and evil, to recognize the “keeper of the threshold / of your assent”—and perhaps that is the role played in art by form:

[B]ut since all of the pages predisposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.

Even so, Virgil, representing the apogee of poetry as well as the limits of secular perception, is left behind at the threshold of paradise. His last words to Dante:

“Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

Nevertheless, Dante has three prophetic dreams and an ecstatic vision, whose sights he refers to as his “not false errors”; he is likewise told in the Earthly Paradise that the pagan poets’ vision of the Golden Age intuited Eden:

“Those ancients who in poetry presented
the golden age, who sang its happy state,
perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place.”

Our poet can’t help himself: even the phantasmagoria of the visionary, even the verses of the unchristened, tell the truth: art is real, beauty will save the world. Hence, despite every misgiving, Beatrice’s instruction: “‘when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen.'”

Weighing in on the perennial question of how to separate the great art from the sinning artist, Dante allows that he will almost certainly have to spend time on the Mount of Purgatory to purge the very pride without which he certainly never would have embarked on such an audacious epic (“already / I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”). When among the prideful, as they learn humility by being bent like crushed caryatids under heavy stones, Dante’s own pity enjoins him to bend with them even though Virgil counsels him to “stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake” and he himself says elsewhere that “erect” is “the stance most suitable to man.”

For the curbed Christian, it sometimes seems, the energy of desire might at any moment be aimed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help but admire Ulysses in the Inferno, and I was sad to see Virgil go here, especially as he is replaced by a Beatrice whose severe reproofs leave Dante in tears. “[W]e are worms,” Dante says, waiting to attain our final form, on butterfly wings in Paradise. But I prefer the early cantos, their simplicity and starkness:

Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour,
which fled before it; in the distance I
could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
like one returning to a lost pathway,
who, till he finds it, seems to move in vain.

On Dante’s earth, language becomes the body, the face, rather than accommodating fantastical beasts in forests rustled by the wind from heaven. In the visages of the starved gluttons of Purgatory, Dante perceives the word “man,” or “omo,” formed by the flesh-purged lines of brow and nose. One sees “man,” too, in Belacqua, made sluggish by sloth, his tragicomic posture often all we can manage on earth:

And one of them, who seemed to me exhausted,
was sitting with his arms around his knees;
between his knees, he kept his head bent down.



  1. Thanks for your site. I always stop for anything Dante. I have attempted to write a novel based loosely on The Divine Comedy, which a few of my blogs describe. Thanks again for helping keep this work of genius alive and relevant.

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