|Purgatory, as a doctrine, is peculiar to the Catholic Church; Purgatory,
as a discipline from sin to virtue, is a practice followed by a large
portion of humanity. The latter fact explains why so many who reject the
dogma, still love and admire Dante's Purgatorio, which, while it teaches
the doctrine of the intermediate state, also serves as an allegory, the
most helpful and beautiful allegory, perhaps, in the literature of the
world. In the opinion of Dean Stanley, it is the most religious book he
ever read. It makes a peculiar appeal to the modern mind because, as
Grandgent says: "It's theme is betterment, release from sin and
preparation for Heaven" ... (and) "its atmosphere is rightly one of hope
Dinsmore declares: "Purgatory as a place may not exist in our system of
thought, but life is a cleansing process if we take its hardships in a
proper spirit." In another place he asserts: "In pondering the way of
life by which this high priest of the Middle Ages (Dante) proclaims that
men attain perfect liberty, we cannot but remark the stress he lays
upon a principle which has well-nigh faded from the Protestant mind. It
is that of expiation—(and) expiation is no musty dogma of the
schoolmen, but a living truth.... Dante placed more emphasis on the
human side of the problem than we, and for this reason he deserves
attentive study, having portrayed most powerfully some truths which our
age, so eager to break from the narrowness of the past, has overlooked."
In agreement with this statement of the learned Congregational divine is
William T. Harris, former United States Commissioner of Education, who
observes in his "Spiritual Sense of the Divina Commedia," that if
Purgatory is absent from the Protestant creed, the thought of which
Purgatory in this life is the symbol, is not uncommon in non-Catholic
literature. His exact words are: "If Protestantism has omitted Purgatory
from its religion, certainly Protestant literature has taken it up and
absorbed it entire," and for proof he points to the moral, among other
books, of The Scarlet Letter, The Marble Faun, Adam Bede and Romola, all
"That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things."
Dante, the theologian, makes his allegory grow out of the doctrine of
Purgatory. According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, temporal
punishment is connected with sin. Even when the guilt of sin is
forgiven, the justice of God in most cases calls for amends by means of
the temporal punishment of the sinner. Holy Writ gives us instances of
the operation of this law. Adam, though brought out of his disobedience
(Wisdom X, 2) was condemned "to eat bread in the sweat of his face"
(Gen. III, 19) to his dying day. Moses and Aaron were forgiven for their
sin of incredulity, but they were punished by being deprived of the
glory of entering "the Land of Promise." (Num., XX, 12.) To King David,
perfectly contrite, the prophet Nathan announces in the name of God, the
forgiveness of the guilt of adultery and murder, yet he must suffer for
his sin. "Nathan said to David: 'The Lord also hath taken away thy sin.
Thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to
the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme for this thing, the child shall
die,' and it came to pass on the seventh day that the child died" (II
Kings XII, 13.)
From these instances it is evident that when God forgives the guilt of
sins and the eternal punishment due to such of them as are mortal, He
does not remove the temporal punishment which must be satisfied in this
life or in the life to come. That is true, the Church teaches, even of
unrepented venial sin with its debt of temporal punishment. While
venial sin does not destroy the supernatural life of the soul and while,
therefore, it is not said to be punishable in Hell, still it is sin in
the sight of Him "whose eyes are too pure to behold evil." (Hab., I,
13.) Now the Church has ever held that into Heaven "there shall not
enter anything defiled." (Apoc., XXI, 27.) Likewise, she has taught that
Hell is the eternal punishment of souls whose grievous guilt has not
been forgiven. It follows, therefore, according to her teachings, that
there must be a middle state for the cleansing of unrepented venial sins
and for the satisfaction of sins already forgiven but not wholly
This state or place is called Purgatory, the belief in the existence of
which is confirmed by the practice of praying for the dead, a practice
based on the teachings of the Old and of the New Testament. In the
second book of Maccabees (XII, 43, 46) we read that Judas, the general
of the Hebrew army, "sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem
for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and
religiously concerning the resurrection. (For if he had not hoped that
they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous
and vain to pray for the dead.) And because he considered that they who
had fallen asleep with godliness had great grace laid up for them. It
is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that
they may be loosed from sins."
This doctrine presupposes that the dead for whom prayer is profitable
are neither in Heaven, the abode of the elect, nor in Hell, from which
release is not possible, but in a state of purification, lasting for a
time. The New Testament alludes to that state. Christ declares: "And
whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be
forgiven him; but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall
not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come."
(Matt., XII, 32.) These words imply that there is a future state in
which some sins are purged away, while there is another state (Hell) in
which the punishment is eternal. The words of St. Paul: "If any man's
work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so
as by fire" (1 Cor., III, 15), are interpreted to mean the existence of
a middle state in which unforgiven venial sins and the temporal
punishment due to sin will be burnt away and the soul thus purified will
attain eternal life.
To state the doctrine of the Church briefly, let it be said that the
Church has defined that there is a Purgatory and that the souls in
Purgatory are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.
Out of facts so general, Dante the poet, has created a Purgatory wholly
unique in the realms of literature, and amazingly definite as to place,
form, atmosphere, inhabitants and their activities. In the southern
hemisphere, at the very antipodes of Jerusalem, out of an ocean on which
there is no other land (according to Dante's system of cosmography)
springs the island of Purgatory, redolent with flowers, lovely with
music, peace keeping pace with penance over all the region. Not a flat,
unbroken plain is this island, but a mountain whose shores are washed by
the ocean, from which the earth forced from the interior by Lucifer's
fall, rises in a truncated conical structure. While its coast and the
land below the terraces are within the zone of air, its heights extend
into the sphere of fire and its crown is the Garden of Eden. The lowest
part of the mountain called Ante-Purgatorio is the abode of the
procrastinators and the excommunicated who put off their repentance to
the end and now must suffer a proportionate delay before they are
permitted to begin their ascent, their work of purification.
Purification begins only after the soul passes into Purgatory proper. At
the entrance is St. Peter's gate, guarded by an angel, who, with his
sword inscribes on the brow of the penitent seven times the letter P,
the first letter of the word Peccatum, signifying sin. These seven P's,
outward signs of inward evil, represent the seven capital sins, the P's
of which are removed in succession by an angel as penance is done for
each sin on its corresponding terrace. The seven terraces which run
around the mountain, rise in succession with lessening circuit as ascent
is made, their width being about seventeen or eighteen feet. Connecting
each terrace and cut out of solid rock is a narrow stairway, guarded by
an angel. The steps of each successive stairway become less steep as
each terrace is attained. Crowning the mountain is the Garden of Eden,
lonely and deserted since Adam and Eve, after six hours of occupancy,
were forced from its confines. Its herbage is still luxuriant, its
flowers endless and fragrant, its trees, melodious with birds, rustle
with the balmy wind, its waters serve to irrigate the garden as well as
to help the soul. These waters, the rivers Lethe and Eunoe, are produced
from heavenly sources and have miraculous powers. The former removes the
memory of sin; the latter restores the recollection of virtuous deeds, a
poetical way of expressing the Catholic dogma, that with the revival of
grace in the heart of the converted sinner comes back the merit that had
been acquired by moral acts.
The problem which Dante sets out to solve in his Purgatory is this:
Assuming that the sinner has been baptized, how can he break his
shackles and attain to the liberty of the children of God? The literal
narrative of Dante's Purgatory presupposing that the soul at the hour of
death is in the state of grace, now shows us that soul working towards
perfection by way of expiation for unforgiven venial sin and for the
temporal punishment due to sin. It is the only way by which it can again
attain its pristine dignity. "And to his dignity he never returns," says
Dante, "unless where sin makes void, he fill up for evil pleasures just
The rule holds good, also, for salvation in this world. The thin veil of
allegory enables us to penetrate Dante's teaching that this life also is
a Purgatory, and here, too, we may cast off the defilement of sin by
means of repentance and expiation. But first the soul must be girt with
the rush of humility, and have perfect contrition represented by its
being washed with the dew, the moisture that descends from Heaven. To
Virgil (Reason guided by Heaven) says Cato (the symbol of Liberty), "Go,
then, and see that thou gird this man with a smooth rush and that thou
wash his face (with dew) so that thou efface from it all foulness, for
it would not be fitting to go into the presence of the first Minister,
who is of those of Paradise, with eyes dimmed by any mist." (1, 95.)
But even if the soul, by perfect contrition, is freed from its guilt of
mortal sin, it must according to the mind of Christ, who instituted the
sacrament of Penance for the remission of sin, submit to the power of
the keys committed to the priesthood and that will be the more necessary
if its contrition is imperfect. While perfect contrition without the
sacrament of Penance may remit sin, if the supernatural motive of sorrow
is not the love of God, but a motive less worthy, e.g., fear of
punishment, forgiveness is to be obtained only by the worthy reception
of Penance. In other words, the penitent must confess his sin to a duly
authorized priest, express his contrition, accept the penance enjoined
by the confessor for the satisfaction of sin and be absolved by virtue
of the words of Christ: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven
and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
All this is most beautifully expressed by Dante in his description of
the Gate of St. Peter and its angelic keeper:
"The lowest stair was marble white, so smooth
And polish'd that therein my mirror'd form
Distinct I saw. The next of hue more dark
Than sablest grain, a rough and singed block,
Cracked lengthwise and across. The third, that lay
Massy above, seemed prophyry, that flam'd
Red as the life-blood spouting from a vein.
On this God's angel either foot sustain'd,
Upon the threshold seated, which appear'd
A rock of diamond. Up the trinal steps
My leader cheerly drew me. 'Ask,' said he,
'With humble heart, that he unbar the bolt.'
Piously at his holy feet devolv'd
I cast me, praying him for pity's sake
That he would open to me: but first fell
Thrice on my bosom prostrate. Seven times
The letter, that denotes the inward stain,
He on my forehead with the blunted point
Of the drawn sword inscrib'd. And 'Look,' he cried,
'When enter'd, that thou wash these scars away.'
Ashes, or earth ta'en dry out of the ground,
Were of one colour with the robe he wore.
From underneath that vestment forth he drew
Two keys of metal twain: the one was gold,
Its fellow silver. With the pallid first,
And next the burnish'd, he so ply'd the gate,
As to content me well. 'Whenever one
Faileth of these, that in the keyhole straight
It turn not, to this alley then expect
Access in vain.' Such were the words he spake,
'One is more precious; but the other needs
Skill and sagacity, large share of each,
Ere its good task to disengage the knot
Be worthily perform'd. From Peter these
I hold, of him instructed, that I err
Rather in opening than in keeping fast,
So but the suppliant at my feet implore.'
Then of that hallow'd gate he thrust the door,
Exclaiming, 'Enter, but this warning hear:
He forth again departs who looks behind.'"
The allegory back of these words is put forth in clear language by Maria
F. Rossetti. "We need hardly to be told" she writes in her Shadow of
Dante (pp. 112-13) "that the Gate of St. Peter is the Tribunal of
Penance. The triple stair stands revealed as candid Confession mirroring
the whole man, mournful Contrition breaking the hard heart of the gazer
on the Cross, Love all aflame offering up in Satisfaction the lifeblood
of body, soul, and spirit:—the adamantine threshold-seat as the
priceless merits of Christ the Door, Christ the Rock, Christ the sure
Foundation and the precious Corner-Stone. In the Angel of the Gate, as
in the Gospel Angel of Bethesda, is discerned the Confessor; in the
dazzling radiance of his countenance, the exceeding glory of the
ministration of righteousness; in the penitential robe, the sympathetic
meekness whereby, restoring one overtaken in a fault, he considers
himself lest he also be tempted; in the sword, the wholesome severity of
his discipline; in the golden key, his divine authority; in the silver,
the discernment of spirits whereby he denies absolution to the
impenitent, the learning and discretion whereby he directs the
Dante's plan of Purgatorial punishment makes no distinction between the
punishment put forth for unforgiven venial sin and that due in
satisfaction for the violation of the moral order by one whose guilt has
been remitted. Both partake of the same penalty. Is that because the
poet thinks that if forgiveness is finally won by sorrow and suffering,
expiation for the offence is still to be made? Or does he hold that the
seven capital sins entailing temporal punishment either operate
effectively in every soul, or exist at least radically according to the
principle voiced by Hamilton Wright Mabie: "The man who slowly builds
Heaven with him, has constantly the terrible knowledge that he has only
to put his hand forth in another direction in order to build Hell?"
In any event Dante, who shows in Hell how men are made sin eternally, in
Purgatory exhibits the sinful disposition more or less under the control
of the will, yet of such a nature that only the grace of God held the
soul back from the Abyss. It must be purged of all tendency to evil so
as to be made "pure and ready to mount to the stars." (XXXIII, 140.) The
purgation is seen in process in a threefold manner according to Dante. A
material punishment is inflicted to mortify the evil passion and to
incite the soul to virtue; the soul meditates upon the capital sin and
its opposite virtue, moved to abhorrence of the evil and to admiration
of the good by examples drawn from sacred and profane history; vocal
prayer is addressed to God and it brings forth grace to purify and
strengthen the soul. Hard in the beginning is this work of repentance,
but it becomes easy as the habit of virtue is formed.
"The mountain is such, that ever
At the beginning down below, 'tis tiresome
And aye the more one climbs, the less it hurts."
As purification from each capital sin is effected, the soul experiences
the removal of a heavy burden and the consequent enjoyment of new
liberty, Dante, purified from pride, asks Virgil: "Master, say what
heavy thing has been lifted from me, that scarce any toil is perceived
by me in journeying." He answered "When the P's which have remained
still nearly extinguished on thy face, shall like the one be wholly
rased out, thy feet shall be so vanquished by goodwill, that not only
will they feel it no toil, but it shall be a delight to them to be urged
upward." (XII, 118).
Mention was made of the material punishment of the souls in Purgatory.
Unlike the retributive penalties inflicted in Hell, this punishment is
reformative, confirming the penitent in good habits of thought and deed.
The proud here realize the irrevocable sentence "everyone who exalteth
himself shall be humbled." They creep round with huge burdens of stone
bowing them down to the very dust and so abased their hearts are turned
The envious sing the praises of generosity while their eyes, the seat of
their sins, are tortured by sutures of wire shutting out the light.
The slothful cannot be restrained in their hurry forward, the leaders,
shouting with tears, examples of diligence, a pair in the rear crying
out instances of sloth.
Penitents expiating the sins of avarice and prodigality lie prostrate
and motionless bound hand and foot, with their faces to the ground,
murmuring the words of the psalmist: "My soul hath cleaved to the
pavement" (Ps., 118, 25.) During the day they eulogize the liberal;
during the night they denounce instances of avarice.
The gluttonous suffer so much from hunger and thirst that they are
reduced to a state of pitiable emaciation. All the while hungering for
righteousness, they glory in crucifying the old Adam in them.
The unchaste purify their passion in hot flames while other penitents
sing the loveliness of chastity and proclaim many examples of that
Through this purification by suffering, the spirits not only submit
willingly but they exhibit real contentment if not actual love of the
chastisement imposed upon them. The unchaste not only heedfully keep
within the flames but gladly endure the fire because they are convinced
"with such treatment and with such diet must the last wound be healed"
(XXV, 136). And most beautiful and enlightening of all, one of the souls
tells Dante that the same impulse which brought Christ gladly to the
agony of the Cross throws them upon their sufferings. Forese, speaking
for the gluttonous, says that the mood in which they accept the
penitential pains is one of submission as well as of solace. "And not
only once, while circling this road, is our pain renewed. I say pain and
ought to say solace, for that desire leads us to the tree which led glad
Christ to say, 'Eli,' when He made us free with his blood." (XXIII, 71).
The avaricious confess "so long as it shall be the pleasure of the just
Lord, so long shall we lie here motionless and outstretched" (XIX, 125).
Among the envious, Guida del Duca prays Dante to continue his journey
instead of stopping to interrogate him, for he himself "delights far
more to weep than to talk" (XIV, 125). The slothful in their eagerness
not to interrupt their diligence in penance, by their conversing with
Virgil, entreat him not to ascribe this attitude to discourtesy, "We
are so filled with desire to speed on" they tell the poets "that stay we
cannot, therefore forgive if thou hold our penance for rudeness."
By such instances and by many others does our poet show the contented
spirit prevailing in Purgatory. He makes it, indeed, a realm whose very
atmosphere is one of peace, because the will of God is done there even
in the midst of suffering. The greeting there is "My brothers, may God
give us peace" (XXI, 13). The penitents pray for a far greater measure
of peace: "Voices I heard and every one appeared to supplicate for peace
and misericord the Lamb of God who takes away our sins" (XVI, 15). When
the wrathful finish their penance an angel says to them, "Blessed are
the peacemakers who are without ill anger" (XVII, 68).
The waters of Purgatory are called "the waters of peace which are the
souls diffused from the eternal fountain" (XVI, 133). Dante addresses
the souls as certain of gaining the unending peace of Paradise. "O
Souls, sure in the possession whenever it may be of a state of peace"
(XXVI, 54). And when the day of release comes on which a soul attains
perfect peace, the whole mountain of Purgatory literally thrills with
joy and every voice is raised to join the harmonious concert of the
angelic hymn first sung at Bethlehem, Gloria in Excelsis Deo. In this
way does the poet teach us the lesson that both Purgatory proper and the
penitential discipline of life give us a peace wholly in contrast with
the uproar of sin whether heard in the halls of conscience or in the
eternal Hereafter. "How different are those openings from those in
Hell," he says, "for here we enter through songs and down there through
fierce wailings" (XII, 112).
Although our poet, imbued with the Catholic doctrine, teaches that
intercessory prayer helps the soul to shorten its term in Purgatory—a
doctrine bound up with the doctrine of the Communion of Saints—it must
never be forgotten that Dante is a Catholic preacher when he insists
that personal effort aided by God's grace, is the thing of supreme
importance in the matter of salvation and purification. Neither
lip-sorrow nor the sacraments themselves unless accompanied by true
sorrow and repentance, can profit the soul. "He cannot be absolved who
doth not first repent, nor can he repent the sin and will it at the same
time, for this were contradiction to which reason cannot assent" (Inf.,
XXVII, 118.) Prayer can help the soul struggling in life or in Purgatory
proper, but the assistance derived from prayer can never do away with
the necessity of personal penance. "Conquer thy panting with the soul
that conquers every battle if with its heavy body it sinks not down."
Let us now hear how Dante sings "of that second realm in which the human
soul is purified and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven" (I, 5). Coming
out of the blackness of Hell just before dawn on Easter Sunday, Virgil
and Dante are entranced at the beautiful scene before them. Through a
cloudless sky of that deep blue for which the sapphire is noted, shines
Venus, the morning star; in the south appear four wonderful stars of
still greater brilliancy, seen before only by our first parents.
"Sweet sheen of oriental sapphire hue
That, mantling in the aspect calm and bright
Of the pure air, to the primal circle grew,
Began afresh to give my eyes delight
Soon as I issued from the deathful air
That had cast sadness o'er my mind and sight,
The beauteous planet that for love takes care
Was making the East laugh through all its span,
Veiling the Fish, that in its escort were
Turned to the right, I set my mind to scan
The other pole; and four stars met my gaze
Ne'er seen before, except by primal man
Heaven seemed rejoicing in their flaming rays."
The two poets looking to the north see Cato the Warder of Purgatory, his
face illuminated by the four stars, typical of the cardinal virtues,
Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Is Dante's selection of
Cato, the pagan suicide, as the guardian of Christian Purgatory, to be
taken as an example of the broadmindedness of the poet who believes "so
wide arms hath goodness infinite, that it receives all who turn to it?"
Or is it an instance showing how the leaven of the old Roman spirit in
the poet—a spirit which justifies suicide, prevails with his profession
of Christianity which condemns the taking of one's life? Whatever be the
answer "Cato's taking his own life rather than renounce liberty is
symbolical of the soul, destroying all selfishness that it may attain
the light and freedom of spiritual life." In the poem Cato is
represented as challenging the poets as if they were fugitives from
Hell. When he is told that it is by divine decree that the pilgrims are
making the journey, he bids Virgil cleanse Dante with dew and gird him
with a rush and he concludes by saying: "then be not this way your
return, the sun which now is rising, will show you how to take the mount
at an easier ascent"—words whose spiritual sense would seem to be that
once the soul has turned to virtue, it must never go back to sin and in
its upward path to perfection it will be guided by the rays of divine
grace (the sun) whose enlightenment will make the ascent easier.
While lingering on the shore, undecided which way to turn, the poets see
a great marvel. Over the water dancing with sunlight comes a white boat
propelled by the white wings of an angel called the Divine Bird, red
with flame and bringing from the banks of the Tiber, the bosom of the
Church, over a hundred souls to begin their term in Purgatory. In
Charon's bark the reprobate souls fill the air with their imprecations;
in the angel-steered boat the spirits coming to Purgatory devoutly
chant: "When Israel went out of Egypt," the psalm so fittingly
descriptive of their own liberation from guilt and their coming into
peace. Here is the description of the scene:
"And lo! as when, upon the approach of morning,
Through the gross vapours Mars grown fiery red
Down in the West upon the ocean floor,
Appeared to me—may I again behold it!—
A light along the sea so swiftly coming,
Its motion by no flight of wing is equalled;
From which when I a little had withdrawn
Mine eyes, that I might question my Conductor,
Again I saw it brighter grown and larger.
Then on each side of it appeared to me
I knew not what of white, and underneath it
Little by little there came forth another.
My Master yet had uttered not a word
While the first whiteness into wings unfolded;
But when he clearly recognized the pilot,
He cried: 'Make haste, make haste to bow the knee!
Behold the Angel of God! fold thou thy hands!
Henceforward shalt thou see such officers!
See how he scorneth human arguments,
So that nor oar he wants, nor other sail
Than his own wings, between so distant shores.
See how he holds them pointed up to heaven,
Fanning the air with the eternal pinions,
That do not mount themselves like mortal hair!'
Then as still nearer and more near us came
The Bird Divine, more radiant he appeared,
So that near by the eye could not endure him,
But down I cast it; and he came to shore
With a small vessel, very swift and light,
So that the water swallowed naught thereof.
Upon the stern stood the Celestial Pilot;
Beatitude seemed written in his face,
And more than a hundred spirits sat within."
And now occurs a touching episode which shows how deep and rich is
friendship in Dante's heart. One of the shades recognizing him, steps
forward with a look so full of affection to embrace him that the poet
is moved to do likewise. Amazement ensues on both sides. The spirit
finds Dante alive in the flesh and he in turn on account of the
impalpability of the shade clasps only empty air. But there is mutual
recognition. Dante asks his newly-found friend Casella, the musician, to
sing as he used to do when his sweet voice soothed the troubled heart of
the poet and banished his cares. "May it please thee therewith to solace
awhile my soul that with its mortal form, journeying here, is sore
distressed." Casella's answer is as loving as it is surprising. He sings
one of Dante's canzoni and the whole party listen with intent delight
finally broken by the chiding words of Cato:
"What is this ye laggard spirits?
What negligence, what standing still is this?
Run to the mountain to strip off the slough
That lets not God be manifest to you."
At the foot of the mountain the poets meet a troop of spirits who,
though excommunicated, died contrite. For their delay in submitting to
the Church for absolution they must wait thirty times as long as the
period of their excommunication. One of them, King Manfred, Chief of the
Ghibellines, son of Emperor Frederick II, tells of his last moment
conversion and also how the Bishop of Cosenza at the word of Pope
Clement IV, enforcing the penalty of excommunication against the corpse
of the king, had it removed from the Papal realm and thrown into the
In narrating how a Christian may be saved even if he died under the ban
of the Church, Dante is only expressing what every Catholic knows as to
the effect of excommunication. This ecclesiastical censure incurred by a
contumacious member of the Church, a censure entailing forfeiture of all
rights and privileges common to a Christian, such as the right to the
sacraments,—a right restored through the confessor, however, whenever
there is danger of death—the right to public service and prayers, the
right to jurisdiction, and to benefices, the right to the canonical
forum, to social intercourse and to Christian burial, this censure of
excommunication does not in the mind of the Church carry with it
exclusion from Purgatory or Heaven.
According to a principle of canon law applied to censures, Ecclesia de
internis non judicat, the Church in the matter of crime does not
concern itself with interior dispositions, excommunication far from
being a sentence of damnation in the next world, is a penalty pertaining
to the external forum of the Church in this life. Even if the penalty
follows the corpse so far as to exclude it from Christian burial, even
here the purpose of the Church is not to pronounce a verdict of the loss
of the contumacious soul in the Hereafter, but to stigmatize among the
living, the memory of the person and so to inspire in them a hatred of
the evil condemned and a respect for law. The story of Manfred now
"And one of them began: 'Whoe'er thou art,
Thus going turn thine eyes, consider well
If e'er thou saw me in the other world'
I turned me tow'rds him, and looked at him closely;
Blond was he, beautiful, and of noble aspect,
But one of his eyebrows had a blow divided.
When with humility I had disclaimed
E'er having seen him, 'Now behold,' he said.
And showed me high upon his breast a wound.
Then said he with a smile: 'I am Manfredi,
The grandson of the Empress Costanza;
Therefore, when thou returnest, I beseech thee
Go to my daughter beautiful, the mother
Of Sicily's honor and of Aragon's,
And the truth tell her, if aught else be told.
After I had my body lacerated
By these two mortal stabs, I gave myself
Weeping to Him, who willingly doth pardon.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
That it receives whatever turns to it,
Had but Cosenza's pastor, who in chase
Of me was sent by Clement at that time,
In God read understandingly this page,
The bones of my dead body still would be
At the bridge-head, near unto Benevento,
Under the safeguard of the heavy cairn.
Now the rain bathes and moveth them the wind,
Beyond the realm, almost beside the Verde,
Where he transported them with tapers quenched.
By malison of theirs is not so lost
Eternal Love, that it cannot return,
So long as hope has anything of green.'"
Following the directions given by Manfred and his companions our
travelers continue their way upward until they reach a broad ledge cut
out in the side of the mountain. While resting here Dante sees a spirit
whom he recognizes as Balaqua, a maker of musical instruments, whose
laziness was a byword in Florence. Our poet who knew the man intimately
had often upbraided him for his indolence. It is said that to excuse
himself in the days of his mortal life, Balaqua quoted a line of
Aristotle: "By sitting down and resting the soul is rendered wise," to
which Dante retorted: "Certainly if one becomes wise by sitting down
none was ever so wise as thou." Now in Purgatory there is amused
indulgence upon Dante's part as he addresses his former fellow citizen
"sitting and clasping his knees, holding his face down between them,
lazier than if sloth were his very sister" (IV, 10).
"His sluggish attitude and his curt words
A little unto laughter moved my lips
Then I began: 'Balaqua I grieve not
For thee henceforth; but tell me wherefore seated
In this place art thou? Waitest thou an escort?
Or has thy usual habit seized upon thee?'
And he: 'O brother, what's the use of climbing?
Since to my torment would not let me go
The angel of the Lord who sitteth at the gate.
First heaven must needs so long revolve me round
Outside thereof, as in my life it did,
Since the good sighs I to the end postponed,
Unless e'er that some prayer may bring me aid
Which rises from a heart that lives in grace."
Unless assisted by the prayer of the sinless faithful upon earth,
Balaqua and his class must stay in Outer-Purgatory, each for a term
equal to the period of his natural life. The third and the fourth
classes in Outer-Purgatory, viz., those who died of violence, deferring
their repentance to the last hour, and kings and princes who because of
temporal concerns of state put off their conversion to the last—all
those also must remain in Outer-Purgatory for a period equal to that of
their lives upon earth, unless the time be shortened by intercessory
prayer. It is to be noted that the souls of the violently slain press so
closely and so insistently about Dante in their eagerness to obtain his
good offices in favor of prayerful intercession for them by their
friends upon earth that he has great difficulty in getting away from
these souls. He succeeds by making promises to execute their
desires—comparing his difficulty of advancing to the trouble a winner
at dice experiences when bystanders crowd about him in obstructive
congratulations and make his way impracticable until he gives some of
his winnings to this one, and some to that one.
"When from their game of dice men separate
He who hath lost remains in sadness fix'd,
Revolving in his mind what luckless throws
He cast; but meanwhile all the company
Go with the other; one before him runs,
And one behind his mantle twitches, one
Fast by his side bids him remember him,
He stops not, and each one to whom his hand
Is stretch'd, well knows he bids him stand aside,
And thus he from the crowd defends himself.
E'en such was I in that close-crowding throng;
And turning so my face around to all,
And promising, I 'scaped from it with pains."
Higher up the mountain occurs a touching instance of love of country.
Virgil draws near a spirit "praying that it would show us the best
ascent"; and that spirit answered not his demand but of our country and
of our life did ask us. And the sweet Leader (Virgil) began "Mantua ..."
And the shade all rapt in self leaped toward him saying, "O Mantuan, I
am Sordello of thy city. And one embraced the other" (VI, 67). This
episode gives to Dante the opportunity to contrast on the one hand the
love of those two fellow citizens drawn together by no other bond than
affection for their native place and on the other hand hatred with which
living contemporaries rend one another.
"Ah Italy, thou slave, that gentle spirit was thus quick, merely at the
sweet name of his city, to give greeting there to his fellow citizen and
now in thee thy living abide not without war and one doth rend the other
of those that one wall and one foss shuts in" (VI, 79).
As night approaches Sordello leads the poets to the angelically
protected Flowery Valley wherein are found the souls of those rulers who
were negligent of the spiritual life. Many of them were once old enemies
but now they not only sing together but live in harmony, united also in
paying tributes to the worth of some reigning monarchs or in expressing
denunciation at the degeneracy of others. Here in the Valley of the
Princes, while sleeping on the grass and among the flowers, Dante has a
strange dream indicative of a near episode in his journey. He sees an
eagle in the sky with wings wide open and intent upon swooping
"Then wheeling somewhat more, it seemed to me
Terrible as the lightning he descended
And snatched me upward even to the (sphere of) fire
Therein it seemed that he and I were burning,
And the imagined fire did scorch me so
That of necessity my sleep was broken."
He awakes to find himself actually transported up the perpendicular wall
to the entrance Gate of Purgatory. Virgil interprets the dream, pointing
out that the eagle represents Lucia (Illuminating Grace) who has carried
the poet to St. Peter's Gate.
"Thou hast at length arrived at Purgatory;
See there the cliff that closeth it around;
See there the entrance, where it seems disjoined.
While at dawn, which doth precede the day,
When inwardly thy spirit was asleep
Upon the flowers that deck the land below,
There came a Lady and said: 'I am Lucia;
Let me take this one up, who is asleep;
So will I make his journey easier for him.'
Sordello and the other noble shapes
Remained; she took thee, and, as day grew bright,
Upward she came, and I upon her footprints.
She laid thee here; and first her beauteous eyes
That open entrance pointed out to me;
Then she and sleep together went away."
The poet, as we said before, cannot enter Purgatory until he mounts the
three steps of confession, contrition and satisfaction. Moreover, he
must receive absolution from the angel-keeper, typical of the priestly
confessor, and he must have seven P's branded upon his forehead. When
this is done the angel opens the gate and Dante enters to the sound of a
thunder-peal from the organ of Heaven, and of voices expressing the joy
of Heaven upon the sinner's doing penance.
Dante's description, which now follows, of the lovely art displayed on
the terrace of Pride leads to the reflection that he must have been a
matchless master of visual instruction or at least the representative of
his times, which, before the age of printing, taught the people by means
of pictures painted upon canvas, burnt in glass or chiseled in stone.
Certain it is that the people of Dante's day from seeing the productions
of art knew the Bible and sacred and profane history so well as to amaze
subsequent generations taught from the printed page. Be that as it may,
the power and beauty of Dante's pictures on the terraces of Purgatory
show his consummate knowledge of a principle of psychology very much
operative in our day, a principle which makes character by educating the
will far better than any other pedagogical method. Verba movent,
exampla trahunt, is a principle which Dante illustrates on every
terrace of Purgatory.
On the terrace of Pride the penitent sees examples of humility carved of
white marble out of the mountain side like Thorwaldsen's Lion, at
Lucerne, Switzerland. Their reality is so compelling that, "not only
Polycletus (the great Greek sculptor) but Nature there would be put to
shame." First to meet the penitent's eyes is the scene of the
Annunciation—the angel Gabriel saluting the Blessed Virgin and
unfolding to her God's plan of making her the Mother of His Son for the
salvation of mankind. In humility she gives her consent in the words:
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy
word." That is the attitude in which she is represented in sculpture,
says Dante, an attitude "imprinting those words as expressly as a figure
is stamped in wax" (X, 44). Near that work of art David stands forth in
marble, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. Trajan, the Roman
emperor, is also seen, interrupting affairs of state to grant a poor
woman a favor. Not only of humility but also of pride are examples
given. Looking down on the pavement over which they slowly walk with
their heavy burdens, the proud have before their eyes the sculptured
punishment of pride as committed by Satan, Briareus, the Giants, Nimrod,
Niobe, Saul and others. Meditating on the loveliness of humility and the
hatefulness of pride, as suggested by those examples and bearing with
prayer the heavy weights imposed upon them for their humiliation and
penance, the proud experience a transformation of disposition wholly
alien to them in the days of their mortality. Among the souls in this
first terrace is Oderisi, who attained such renown as an illuminator of
manuscripts and a painter of miniatures that he boasted that no one
could surpass him. Now he not only is conscious of his former blatant
pride, but in proof of his change of heart he gives full credit for
superiority to his former pupil and subsequent rival, Franco Bolognese;
"O," asked I him, "art thou not Oderisi,
Agobbio's honor and honor of that art
Which is in Paris called illuminating?
'Brother,' said he, 'more laughing are the leaves
Touched by the brush of Franco Bolognese.
All his the honor now, and mine in part,
In sooth I had not been so courteous
While I was living, for the great desire
Of excellence on which my heart was bent.'"
Dante sees here another spirit, Provenzano Salvani. His rapid advance
from Outer Purgatory to Purgatory was due to the merit of a
self-humiliating act performed in favor of a friend. This friend had
been taken prisoner by King Charles of Anjou and was held for ransom of
a thousand florins of gold, the threat being made that if the amount was
not raised within a month he would be put to death. It speaks well for
the tender friendship of Salvani that he put aside all his pride and
arrogance while he took his place in the market square to beg alms with
which to liberate his friend. Dante relates the incident in the
following words; "When he was living in highest glory, in the market
place of Sienna he stationed himself of his own free will and put away
all shame and there to deliver his friend from the pains he was
suffering in Charles' prison, he brought himself to tremble in every
vein" (XI, 133).
As the poets enter the terrace of Envy aerial voices proclaim examples
of Brotherly Love. First are heard the words of the Blessed
Virgin:—"They have no wine," words in favor of those who were in need
at the marriage feast, which led Christ to perform his first miracle.
Then as an example of exposing one's self to death for the sake of
another, the incident is recalled of the pagan Pylades feigning himself
to be Orestes to save the latter from death. The voice saying, "Love
those from whom ye have had evil," is an exhortation to the heroic act
of charity of returning good for evil. In contrast with those counsels
of charity, other voices call out direct warnings against envy.
On this terrace is neither beauty nor art but envy's own color. A livid
hue is the whole landscape. Of this color also are the garments of the
suffering souls. They are depicted one leaning against the other in
mutual love and for mutual support, like beggars sitting at the entrance
of a church to which crowds go for the gaining of an Indulgence.
Pitiable is the scene, for the envious in expiation for their sin,
which entered their soul through its windows, the eyes, are deprived of
sight, their lids being fastened by a wire suture such as is used for
the taming of a hawk. Dante says of them:
Shadows with garments dark as was the rock;
And when we pass'd a little forth, I heard
A crying, 'Blessed Mary! pray for us,
Michael and Peter! all ye saintly host!'
I do not think there walks on earth this day
Man so remorseless, that he had not yearn'd
With pity at the sight that next I saw.
Mine eyes a load of sorrow teem'd, when now
I stood so near them, that their semblance
Came clearly to my view. Of sackcloth vile
Their covering seem'd; and, on his shoulder, one
Did stay another, leaning; and all lean'd
Against the cliff. E'en thus the blind and poor,
Near the confessionals, to crave an alms,
Stand, each his head upon his fellow's sunk;
So most to stir compassion, not by sound
Of words alone, but that which moves not less,
The sight of misery. And as never beam
Of noonday visiteth the eyeless man,
E'en so was heaven a niggard unto these
Of this fair light: for, through the orbs of all,
A thread of wire, impiercing, knits them up,
As for the taming of a haggard hawk."
(Canto, XIII, 42.)
As the poets continue their way over the second terrace Virgil explains
an obscure phrase uttered by Guido del Duca, a soul punished for the sin
of envy. That spirit speaking to Dante reproached mankind for setting
its heart upon material things; "The heavens are calling to you and
wheel around you, displaying unto you their eternal beauties and your
eye gazes only on earth." Envy is consequently engendered because as the
spirit says: "Mankind sets its heart there where exclusion of
partnership is necessary." (XV, 43). "What meant the spirit from Romagna
by mentioning exclusion and partnership?" asks Dante. Virgil proceeds to
tell him that companionship in earthly possessions is not possible, for
the more of any material thing a person has, the less of it remains for
others. Hence envy arises from the very nature of the object which
excludes partnership. On the other hand the more of the spiritual life
one has, the more others participate in knowledge, peace and love, and
this is especially true of the angels and the elect. The greater their
number, the greater is the sum total of grace bestowed by God and the
more each spirit shares his love with others. "The more spirits there
on high yonder who love, the more there are to love perfectly and the
more do they love each other and as a mirror one reflects back to the
other" (XV, 75).
This doctrine is expounded until the poets reach the third terrace,
where wrath is punished. Here Dante represents himself as having a
vision wherein he beholds examples of meekness and patience. First he
sees the Finding of the Boy Christ in the temple and hears Mary's gentle
complaint. Then follows the scene of Pisistratus refusing to condemn a
youth for insulting his daughter. The third picture is that of the
stoning of St. Stephen.
"Then suddenly I seem'd
By an ecstatic vision wrapt away:
And in a temple saw, methought, a crowd
Of many persons; and at the entrance stood
A dame, whose sweet demeanor did express
Another's love, who said, 'Child! why hast thou
Dealt with us thus? Behold thy sire and I
Sorrowing have sought thee;' and so held her peace;
And straight the vision fled. A female next
Appear'd before me, down whose visage coursed
Those waters, that grief forces out from one
By deep resentment stung who seem'd to say:
'If thou, Pisistratus, be lord indeed
Over this city, named with such debate
Of adverse gods, and whence each science sparkles,
Avenge thee of those arms, whose bold embrace
Hath clasp'd our daughter;' and to her, me seem'd,
Benigh and meek, with visage undisturb'd,
Her sovereign spake: 'How shall we those requite
Who wish us evil, if we thus condemn
The man that loves us?' After that I saw
A multitude, in fury burning, slay
With stones a stripling youth, and shout amain
'Destroy, destroy'; and him I saw, who bow'd
Heavy with death unto the ground, yet made
His eyes, unfolded upward, gates to heaven,
Praying forgiveness of the Almighty Sire,
Amidst that cruel conflict, on his foes,
With looks that win compassion to their aim."
(Canto, XV, 84.)
The wrathful are punished by being enveloped in a dense pungent smoke,
emblematic of the stifling caused by angry passions.
"Darkness of hell, and of a night deprived
Of every planet under a poor sky,
As much as may be tenebrous with cloud,
Ne'er made unto my sight so thick a veil, >
As did that smoke which there enveloped us,
Nor to the feeling of so rough a texture;
For not an eye it suffered to stay open;
Whereat mine escort, faithful and sagacious,
Drew near to me and offered me his shoulder.
E'en as a blind man goes behind his guide,
Lest he should wander, or should strike against
Aught that may harm or peradventure kill him,
So went I through the bitter and foul air,
Listening unto my Leader, who said only,
'Look that from me thou be not separated.'
Voices I heard, and every one appeared
To supplicate for peace and misericord
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins.
Still Agnus Dei their exordium was;
One word there was in all, and metre one,
So that all harmony appeared among them.
'Master,' I said, 'are spirits those I hear?'
And he to me: 'Thou apprehendest truly,
And they the knot of anger go unloosing.'"
(Canto, XVI, 1.)
Soon after this our poet hears one of the spirits of the wrathful,
discoursing on the degeneracy of human life and sees in a second series
of visions, historic instances of wrath and its punishment. He is
awakened from his trance by the shining light and the glad summons of the
Angel of meekness, who is at the stair leading to the next terrace.
"This is a spirit divine who in the way
Of going up directs us without asking
And who with his own light himself conceals.
Lightened of the third P the poet passes from the circle of the wrathful
up the fourth stairway. Here he takes the opportunity to engage Virgil
in conversation regarding love as the seed of the capital sins. These
sins, it may be remarked in passing, are not always mortal sins, though
many Dantian editors make the mistake of so classifying them. It is to
be observed that on all the stairways of Purgatory there is a conference
between the two poets on things likely to be of interest to Dante, in
the matter of his salvation. At the end of the present conference Dante
falls into slumber, from which he is aroused by the racing activity of
the souls of the slothful, shouting instances of zeal and energy.
Accord we our feet, to such inviting
Let us make haste to mount ere it grow dark;
For then we could not till the day return."
Sloth is defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as sadness and torpor in the face
of some spiritual good which one has to achieve, and a preacher of our
day modernizes that definition to mean, the "don't-care-feeling" in the
presence of duty. The sin is unlisted in modern treatises on Ethics,
the writers of which see in its symptoms only indications of
melancholia, neurasthenia or pellagra. But according to the scholastic
classification still followed in this matter by the Catholic Church,
sloth is to be considered as a specific vice opposed to the great
commandment to love God with our whole heart.
So Dante estimates it in his scheme of punishment, representing the
souls crying out in their diligence, "Haste, haste, let no time be lost
through little love." These souls are condemned to rush round and round
at the topmost speed, those in front proclaiming instances of alacrity,
viz., how the Blessed Virgin hastened to the hill country to visit
Elizabeth and how Julius Caesar hurried to subdue Lerida. Those in the
rear recall examples of sloth, viz., how the Israelites through
wandering in the desert lost the Promised Land, and how the Trojans who
dallied in Sicily gave themselves up to a life inglorious. Dante's
slothful souls are startlingly swift in their action. One of them, the
Abbot Zeno giving directions for ascent to Virgil and reprobating the
sins of his successors in the monastery is out of hearing as soon as he
speaks: "If more be said or if he was silent I know not, so far already
had he raced beyond us" (XVIII, 127).
The reader will not fail to note that the terrace of the slothful is
the only circle of Purgatory where there is no request for intercessory
prayer and that Dante here never speaks to any of those souls. Is that
because the poet wishes us to understand that his own sentiment is that
they do not deserve to be prayed for who neglected through sloth to pray
for themselves and that his own silence in their presence is indicative
of his disregard for souls so stained?
To foreshow the sins to be treated on the three upper terraces, where
are punished those who yielded to the sins of the body, Dante represents
himself as tempted by a Siren. She is described as ugly and repulsive
and then becoming, under the gaze of the beholder, fair and alluringly
attractive—a description, perhaps, unconsciously reproduced by Pope
when he wrote:
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen.
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace."
Saved from the Siren by a noble lady (perhaps Lucia, Illuminating Grace)
and Virgil, the poet is brooding upon the dream which has brought to his
senses the pleasures of the world, when his guide admonishes him how
salvation from sin's seduction is to be had—viz., by using worldly
things as things to be trodden under foot, while the mind is raised to
Heaven, God's lure to draw it upward.
"Didst thou behold, that old enchantress
Who sole above us henceforth is lamented?
Didst thou behold how man is free from her?
Suffice it thee, and smite earth with thy heels,
Thine eyes lift upward to the lure, that whirls
The Eternal King with revolutions vast."
On the fifth terrace our poets find the shades of the avaricious and the
prodigals. They lie face to the ground, bound hand and foot, recalling
during the night instances of avarice and during the day proclaiming the
praise of liberality, as manifested in the Blessed Virgin, the pagan
Fabricius and St. Nicholas. The latter is identified in the United
States and some other countries, with the popular Santa Claus. Dante
says of St. Nicholas that "the spirit went on to speak of the bounty
which Nicholas gave to the maidens, to lead their youth to honor" (XX,
32). The allusion is to the legend that this Bishop of Myra secretly
threw at different times into the windows of the home of three destitute
maidens, bags of gold sufficient to provide them with dowries without
which they would have been forced by poverty to a life of shame.
In therealm of the avaricious and the prodigals, Dante addresses one of the
repentent souls: "Spirit, who thou wast and why ye have your backs
turned upward, tell me" (XX, 94).
The answer of the shade of Pope Adrian IV, who died thirty-nine days
after his election to the supreme pontificate without having been
crowned, is one of the fine passages of the poem.
"And he to me: 'Why Heaven makes us turn our backs to it, thou
shalt learn: but first know that I was the successor of Peter.
Between Siestri and Chiaveri there rushes down a fair river and
from its name the title of my race takes its proudest distinction.
For one month and a little more I experienced how heavily the great
mantle weighs on him who keeps it out of the mire, so much so that
all the other burdens seem but feathers. My conversion alas! was
tardy; but when I had become the Roman pastor then I discovered how
false life is. In it I found that the heart had no repose nor was
it possible to rise higher in that life; wherefore the desire for
this (immortal life) was kindled in me. Up to that time, I was a
wretched soul and severed from God, wholly given up to Avarice. Now
as thou seest I am punished for it here. What is the effect of
Avarice is here made manifest in the purgation of the converted
souls, and the mountain has no more bitter penalty, as our eyes
fixed on earthly things, were not lifted up on high, even so has
justice sunk them to the ground in this place. Even as Avarice
quenched our love for every good, wherefore our works were lost, so
justice doth hold us fast, bound and seized by feet and hands; and
so long as it shall be the pleasure of the just Lord, so long shall
we lie here motionless and outstretched.'" (XIX, 97.)
At this point occurs one of those delightful surprises full of realism,
that Dante uses from time to time to heighten the reader's interest. The
poet has just learned that the spirit before him is Pope Adrian IV. At
once Dante falls on his knees to pay homage to the high office of the
Roman Pontiff, and he is about to say according to the conjecture of
Benvenuto "Holy Father, I entreat your holiness to excuse my natural
ignorance, for I was not aware of your being Pope." But the spirit bids
the poet arise, telling him that in the spirit world the dignities and
relations of this life are abolished.
"I on my knees had fallen and wished to speak;
But even as I began and he was aware,
Only by listening, of my reverence,
'What cause,' he said, 'has downward bent thee thus?'
And I told him: 'For your dignity,
Standing, my conscience stung me with remorse.'
'Straighten thy legs, and upward raise thee, brother,'
He answered, 'Err not, fellow servant am I
With thee and with the others to one power
If e'er that holy, evangelic sound
Which sayeth neque nubent, thou hast heard
Well canst thou see why in this wise I speak.'"
In this part of Purgatory Dante treats his readers to two other
instances of surprise. The first case which also makes use of the
dramatic quality of suspense, postponing the explanation to the
following canto in order to prolong the eager expectation of the reader,
narrates the occurrence of a wonderful phenomenon, the shaking of the
mountain of Purgatory, accompanied by a harmonious outburst of joyful
"We were striving to surmount the way so far as was permitted to our
power when I felt the mountain quake like a thing which is falling;
whereupon a chill gripped me, as is wont to grip him who is given to
death. Of a surety Delos was not shaken so violently ere Latona made her
nest therein to give birth to heaven's two eyes. Then began on all sides
a shout, such that the Master drew toward me saying: 'Fear not while I
do guide thee.' Gloria in Excelsis Deo all were saying, by what I
understood from those near by, whose cry could be heard. Motionless we
stood and in suspense, like the shepherds who first heard that hymn,
until the quaking ceased and it was ended. Then we took up again our
holy way, looking at the shades, that lay on the ground already returned
to their wonted plaint. No ignorance, if my memory err not in this, did
ever with so great assault give me yearning for knowledge, I then seemed
to have while pondering: nor by reason of our haste was I bold to ask;
nor of myself could I see aught there; thus I went on timid and
His curiosity is satisfied in an unexpected way. "The natural thirst
which never is sated, save with the water whereof the poor Samaritan
woman asked the grace, was burning within me—and lo, even as Luke
writes to us that Christ appeared to the two who were on the way,
already risen from the mouth of the tomb, a shade appeared to us saying:
'My brothers God give you peace.' Quickly we turned us and Virgil gave
back to him the sign that is fitting thereto. Then began, 'May the true
court that binds me in eternal exile, bring thee peace to the council of
the blest.' 'How,' said he, and meantime we met sturdily, 'If ye are
shades that God deigns not above, who hath escorted you so far by his
stairs'? And my Teacher: 'If thou lookest at the marks which this man
bears and which the angel outlines clearly wilt thou see 'tis meet he
reign with the good.... Wherefore I was brought from Hell's wide jaws to
guide him and I will guide him onward, so far as my school can lead him.
But tell us, if thou knowest, why the mount gave before such quakings
and wherefore all seemed to shout with one voice down to its soft
It was the very question Dante had been yearning to utter.
"Thus, by asking did he thread the very needle of my desire and with the
pope alone my thirst was made less fasting."
The spirit, Statius by name, who has just obtained his release from
Purgatorial confinement to ascend to Heaven, states that the earthquake
was not due to natural causes, such as strong dry vapors producing wind,
but was caused by spiritual elements operative upon a soul's completing
the penance and term assigned.
"It quakes here when some soul feeleth herself cleansed, so that she may
rise up or set forth, to mount on high, and such a shout follows her. Of
the cleansing the will alone gives proof, which fills the soul, all free
to change her cloister, and avails her to will.... And I who have lain
under this torment five hundred years and more, only now felt free will
for a better threshold. Therefore didst thou feel the earthquake and
hear the pious spirits about the mount give praises to the Lord."
This Statius was a Roman poet who died in the year 96. His term in
Purgatory therefore has lasted a little more than eleven centuries. The
next longest period mentioned by Dante is that of Duke Hugh Capet who
has been in Purgatory over 350 years with his purification still
incomplete. Statius by Dante's poetic invention is represented first as
saved through the influence of Virgil's poems and then is shown to be a
Christian, having been led to embrace Christianity both from the heroic
example of the martyrs and from his meditation on Virgil's prophecy of
the Cumæan Sibyl interpreted in the Middle Ages to refer to Christ. In
the Divina Commedia Statius pays a glowing tribute to the Æneid and its
author, wholly ignorant that he is addressing Virgil himself. "Of the
Æneid I speak which was a mother to me and was to me a nurse in poesy
... and to have lived yonder when Virgil was alive, I would consent to
one sun more than I need perform." Dante is all aquiver to surprise
Statius with the information that Virgil is at hand, "but Virgil turned
to me with a look that silently said, 'be silent.'"
"But the power which wills
Bears not supreme control: laughter and tears
Follow so closely on the passion prompts them,
They wait not for the motions of the will
In nature most sincere. I did but smile,
As one who winks; and thereupon the shade
Broke off, and peer'd into mine eyes, where best
Our looks interpret. 'So to good event
Mayst thou conduct such great emprize,' he cried,
'Say, why across thy visage beam'd, but now,
The lightning of a smile.' On either part
Now am I straiten'd; one conjures me speak,
The other to silence binds me; whence a sigh
I utter, and the sigh is heard. 'Speak on,'
The teacher cried 'and do not fear to speak:
But tell him what so earnestly he asks.'
Whereon I thus: 'Perchance, O ancient spirit
Thou marvel'st at my smiling. There is room
For yet more wonder. He, who guides my ken
On high, he is that Mantuan, led by whom
Thou didst presume of men and gods to sing.
If other cause thou deem'dst for which I smiled,
Leave it as not the true one: and believe
Those words, thou spakest of him, indeed the cause.'
Now down he bent to embrace my teacher's feet;
But he forbade him: 'Brother! do it not:
Thou art a shadow, and behold'st a shade.'
He, rising, answer'd thus: 'Now hast thou proved
The force and ardor of the love I bear thee,
When I forget we are but things of air,
And, as a substance, treat an empty shade.'"
On the sixth terrace Dante with five P's removed, accompanied by Virgil
sees the souls of those who sinned by gluttony. They are an emaciated
crowd obliged to pass and repass before a fruit-laden tree bedewed with
clear water from a fountain, without being able to satisfy their hunger
or quench their thirst. Voices from this tree proclaim examples of
temperance; voices from another tree equally tantalizing, declare
examples of gluttony.
"People I saw beneath it (the tree) lift their hands
And cry I know not what towards the leaves,
Like little children eager and deluded,
Who pray, and he they pray to doth not answer
But, to make very keen their appetite
Holds their desire aloft and hides it not.
Then they departed as if undeceived."
Here Dante recognizes among the gaunt attenuated figures of the
penitents, Forese Donati, his intimate friend and kinsman of his wife
Gemma. Our poet was surprised to find him so soon after his death on one
of the terraces of Purgatory, the assumption being that because of his
delay of conversion to the end of his life Forese would be in Outer
Purgatory for a term equal in duration to the length of his life on
earth. But the reason he had come so quickly to Purgatory is to be found
in the efficacy of the prayers of his widow for the repose of his
"Then answered he: 'That now I wander reaping
The bitter sweat of all this punishment
My Nella gained for me, her vigil keeping
In prayer devout and infinite lament.
Thus, here, beyond that shore of waiting sent,
I landed, from the lower circles freed.
And that more dear to God omnipotent
Lives on my little widow, is the meed
Of the lone life she spends in many a saintly deed.'"
Before ascending to the seventh and last terrace Dante describes how
the angel of abstinence removed the sixth P.
"And as the harbinger of early dawn,
The air of May doth move and breathe out fragrance
Impregnate all with herbage and with flowers,
So did I feel a breeze strike in the midst
My front, and felt the moving of the plumes
That breathed around an odor of ambrosia;
And heard it said; Blessed are they whom grace
So much illumines that the love of taste
Excites not in their breasts too great desire,
Hungering at all times so far as is just."
And now our penitent as he reaches the seventh terrace, where sins
against the virtue of purity are expiated, enters upon the last stage of
his purification. Here the spirits pass and repass through the midst of
intensely hot flames, proclaiming examples of chastity. It is worthy of
note that this terrace is the only place in Dante's Purgatory where fire
is the punitive agent—a conception of our poet all the more remarkable
because it runs counter to the view commonly held by the churchmen in
the West, including St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas
Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, who teach that fire is the cleansing element
of all Purgatory. That indeed is only a theological opinion. The Church
itself, as the Greeks were assured at the Council of Florence, has never
put forth any dogmatic decree on the subject.
Bidden by the angel to enter the fire, Dante draws back paralysed with
fear. Scenes of burning at the stake come with horror to his mind. He
probably recalls also that Florence had condemned him to be burned
alive. So, for the first time in Purgatory he recoils at the penance he
must perform. Impassionately Virgil exhorts him. The stubborn pupil
yields only at the utterance of Beatrice's name. For love of her he will
endure the flame.
"The Mantuan spake: 'My son,
Here torment thou mayst feel, but canst not death.
Remember thee, remember thee, if I
Safe e'en on Geryon brought thee; now I come
More near to God, wilt thou not trust me now?
Of this be sure; though in its womb that flame
A thousand years contain'd thee, from thy head
No hair should perish. If thou doubt my truth,
Approach; and with thy hands thy vesture's hem
Stretch forth, and for thyself confirm belief.
Lay now all fear, oh! lay all fear aside.
Turn hither, and come onward undismay'd.'
I still, though conscience urged, no step advanced.
When still he saw me fix'd and obstinate,
Somewhat disturb'd he cried: 'Mark now, my son,
From Beatrice thou art by this wall
Divided.' As at Thisbe's name the eye
Of Pyramus was open'd (when life ebb'd
Fast from his veins) and took one parting glance,
While vermeil dyed the mulberry; thus I turned
To my sage guide, relenting, when I heard
The name that springs for ever in my breast.
He shook his forehead; and, 'How long,' he said,
'Linger we now'? then smiled, as one would smile
Upon a child that eyes the fruit and yields.
Into the fire before me then he walk'd;
And Statius, who erewhile no little space
Had parted us, he pray'd to come behind,
I would have cast me into molten glass
To cool me, when I entered; so intense
Raged the conflagrant mass. The sire beloved,
To comfort me, as he proceeded, still
Of Beatrice talk'd. 'Her eyes,' saith he,
'E'en now I seem to view.' From the other side
A voice, that sang did guide us; and the voice
Following, with heedful ear, we issued forth,
There where the path led upward. 'Come,' we heard,
'Come blessed of my Father.'"
(Canto, XXVII, 20.)
On emerging from the fire and on the very threshold of the Garden of
Eden, Dante is addressed by Virgil, no longer competent to guide him
higher. The Mantuan in touching words tells his disciple that having
passed through Purgatory he needs no other guide than his own will,
upright and sound, until he passes under the tutelage of Beatrice.
"The temporal fire and the eternal
Son, thou hast seen, and to a place art come
Where of myself no farther I discern.
By intellect and art I here have brought thee;
Take thine own pleasure for thy guide henceforth;
Beyond the steep ways and the narrow art thou.
Expect no more or word or sign from me;
Free and upright and sound is thy free will,
And error were it not to do its bidding
Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre."
Brother Azarias gives us the mystical sense of this passage. "The soul
has conquered; therefore Virgil leaves the poet free from the dominion
of his passions; more than free, a king crowned triumphant over himself;
more than a king, a mitred priest, ruling the cloister of his heart, his
thoughts and his affections and mediator and intercessor before Divine
Mercy for himself and those commending themselves to his prayers."
So crowned and mitred over himself Dante now enters the Garden of Eden.
"Here did the parents of mankind dwell in innocence; here is there
perpetual spring and every fruit."
In the forest of Eden is a pure stream with two currents, Lethe and
Eunoe, "the first has the power of all past sins the memory to erase,
the other can restore remembrance of good deeds and pious days." On the
banks of this stream the poet sees Matilda, who represents the Active
"There appeared to me a lady all alone who went along singing and
selecting from among the flowers wherewith all her path was enamelled"
... suddenly "the lady turned completely round towards me, saying, 'My
Brother, look and listen'" (XXIX, 15). A solemn chant is heard, a
wonderful light is seen. It is a pageant representing the return of
mankind to Eden through membership in the Church.
First come, shedding heavenly light, the seven mystical candlesticks,
symbolic of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost or the seven sacraments of
the Church. Next follow twenty-four ancients representating the books of
the Old Testament. Then are seen the four prophetic animals symbolizing
the four Evangelists. Christ drawing a chariot representing the Church,
the central figure of the pageant, advances under the form of the
fabulous griffin, half eagle and half lion, typifying the two-fold
nature of our Lord. On the right side of the chariot, dancing are three
nymphs, the theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. On the left
side are four other nymphs—the cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice,
Fortitude and Temperance. Next come two old men, dignified and grave,
St. Paul and St. Luke, who are followed by four others representing
other books of the New Testament viz., the Epistles of St. James, St.
Peter, St. John and St. Jude. The rear guard is an aged Solitary
symbolic of the Apocalypse.
"And when the chariot was opposite to me" writes Dante, "a clap of
thunder was heard; and those worthy folk seemed to have their further
march forbidden, and halted there with the first ensign" (XXIX, 153).
What is the meaning of this symbolic procession so common to Dante's
day, so alien to ours? We have already said that it is a dramatic
representation of the human race finding happiness, finding its Eden in
its membership in the Church. But it, also, is a symbolic lesson for the
individual. Dante, the type of humanity having done penance for his
sins, is about to be received through the sacrament of penance into the
soul of the Church i.e. into the full communion of grace. It is
fitting, therefore, that the Church should advance to meet him, the
repentant sinner, and should reveal itself to him before receiving him
into its bosom.
If objection be made that Dante already has been absolved from sin and
in Purgatory has made expiation for his offences, the answer is given by
Ozanam; "At the term of the expiatory course, as at its beginning, to
quit it as well as to enter upon it, we must render submission to a
religious authority and fulfill the conditions without which God does
not treat with us—confession for oblivion, fears for consolation and
shame for definitive rehabilitation." When the pageant comes to a halt
the participants group themselves about the Griffin and the Chariot, by
that act declaring that the goal and object of their desires are
centered in Christ and His Church. Then one of the company by divine
command calls aloud three times to a heavenly being, the spouse of the
Church, to appear and the cry is repeated by the whole company. From the
Chariot arise, as will arise the dead from their graves, a hundred
angels scattering flowers over and around the Chariot and also raising
their voices in the call for the Heavenly Bride. They first sing the
words of the Canticle of Palm Sunday. Benedictus qui venis (Blessed
art thou who comest) and then the beautiful line from the Aeneid:
Manibus o date lilia plenis (Oh! give lilies with full hands). Then
comes from the clouds through the midst of the flowers showering down
again within and without the Chariot, arrayed in the colors of the three
theological virtues, the object of the invocation.
"Crowned with olive over a white veil a Lady appeared to me, vestured in
hue of living flame under a green mantle." It is Beatrice, Dante's
beloved, now apotheosized in the personification of Revelation. What
other poet ever dreamed of so glorifying his beloved that for her coming
the natural virtues prepare the way, the supernatural virtues, as
handmaids accompany her to assist us to the understanding of her
doctrine, the angels sing her laudation and she herself in the role both
of unveiler of the Scriptures of the Prophets and the Apostles and the
mystical Bride of the Canticles is worthy to be called "O Light, O Glory
of the human race?"
Dante before seeing her face, recognizes her by some mysterious instinct
of love, recognizes her after a lapse according to fiction of ten years,
but in reality of twenty-four years since her death.
To Virgil, Dante turns to tell the joyous news but Virgil has gone and
tears course down the face of his disciple.
"Dante," says Beatrice, "weep not that Virgil leaves thee, nay weep thou
not yet, for thou wilt have to weep for another wound." Awed by her
appearance, he is taken back by her greeting. The mere thought of her
loveliness uplifted him in the world. The hope of seeing her carried him
through the horrors of Hell and the penance of Purgatory. Crowned and
mitred over himself he came to Eden to meet her. And she has only
reproaches for him. Particularly to the angels does she tell the story
of his defection from the high ideals which she inspired in him. "This
man was such in his new life potentially that every good talent would
have made wondrous increase in him—(but) so low sank he that all means
for his salvation were already short save showing him the lost people.
For this I visited the portal of the dead and to him who has guided him
up hither, weeping my prayers were borne. God's high decree would be
broken if Lethe were passed and such viands were tasted, without some
sort of penitence that may shed tears."
To her lover she turns for confirmation of the truth of her words: "Say,
say if this is true; to such accusation thy confession must be joined."
"Confusion and fear together mingled, drove forth from my mouth a
'Yea,'" a monosyllable of confession which showed the depth of his
But it is the sight of the superhuman beauty of Beatrice which completes
his contrition and resuscitates his love so as to fit him to pass
through the waters of the Lethe.
"My eyes beheld Beatrice, turned toward the animal (the Griffin) that is
One Person only (Christ) in twofold nature (i.e. God and man). Under her
veil and on the far side of the stream she seemed to me to surpass more
her ancient self, than she surpassed the others here when she was with
us. So much remorse gnawed at my heart that I fell vanquished and what I
then became she knoweth who gave me the cause." (XXXI, 82.)
When he recovers consciousness he finds his immersion in the Lethe in
progress by Matilda. Then he is led to Beatrice by the four nymphs (the
cardinal virtues) and at the request of the three nymphs who typify the
theological virtues she smiles upon him.
"The fair lady (Matilda) dipped me where I must needs swallow of the
water, then drew me forth and led me, bathed, within the dance of the
four fair ones, and each did cover me with her arm. 'Here we are nymphs
and in heaven are stars. Ere Beatrice descended to the world, we were
ordained for her handmaids: we will lead thee to her eyes: but the three
on the other side who deeper gaze will sharpen thine eyes to the joyous
light that is within."
Beholding the glorified beauty of Beatrice wholly inexpressible, Dante
is in such rapture that he is oblivious of everything else.
"Mine eyes with such an eager coveting
Were bent to rid them of their ten years' thirst
No other sense was waking; and e'en they
Were fenced on either side from heed of aught:
So tangled, in its custom'd toils, that smile
Of saintly brightness drew it to itself."
When our poet comes out of his rapture, the Chariot and the mystical
company are moving to a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
which according to a beautiful tradition has become the Cross of Christ,
the tree of salvation. To that tree is attached the Chariot which Christ
(the Griffin) now leaves to enter Heaven again with the ancients and the
angels. Beatrice remains with the seven nymphs to guard the Chariot (the
Church). Up to this point the picture of the Church has been one of
peace and happiness. Now with prophetic eye the poet beholds the
tribulations which the Church will suffer from without and within. The
description of the vision and the explanation of the symbolism are so
well set forth by Ozanam that I quote his words unable to improve upon
them, as I also share his view as to the unwarranted severity here of
Dante's censures of the Church.
"An eagle falls like lightning upon the tree, from which he tears the
bark, and upon the car, which bends beneath his weight. Then comes a fox
which finds its way within, and then a portion is torn off by a dragon
that issues from the gaping earth. Thus far it is easy to recognize the
persecutions of the Roman emperors which so harried the Church, the
heresies by which it was desolated, and the schisms by which it was
torn. Soon, the eagle reappeared, less menacing but not less dangerous;
he shook his plumes above the sacred car, which speedily underwent a
monstrous transformation. From divers parts of it arose seven heads
armed with ten horns; a courtesan was seated in the midst; a giant stood
at her side, exchanging with her impure caresses which he interrupted to
scourge her cruelly. Then, cutting loose the metamorphosed car, he bears
it away, and is lost with it in the depths of the forest.
"Is not this again the Church, enriched, by the gifts of princes who
have become her protectors, sadly marred in appearance, sundry of her
members defiled by the taint of the seven capital sins, and herself
ruled over by unworthy pontiffs? Is not this the court of Rome,
exchanging criminal flatteries with the temporal power, which flatteries
are to be followed by cruel injuries, when the Holy See, torn from the
foot of the cross of the Vatican, is transferred to a distant land, on
the banks of a foreign river? But these ills will not be without end nor
without retribution. The tree that lost and that saved the world cannot
be touched with impunity, and if the Church has been made militant here
below, it is with the liability of suffering from passing reverses, but
also with the assurance of final victory."
Dante's own eternal victory is now assured, Beatrice directs Matilda to
lead him to the Eunoe, whose waters will regenerate him and fit him to
ascend to Paradise. "Behold, Eunoe which gushes forth yonder, lead him
thereto and as thou art wont, revive in him again his fainting powers."
The poem closes with an address to the reader:
"If, Reader, I possessed a longer space
For writing it, I yet would sing in part
Of the sweet draught that ne'er would satiate me;
But inasmuch as full are all the leaves
Made ready for this second canticle,
The curb of art no farther lets me go.
From the most holy water I returned
Regenerate, in the manner of new trees
That are renewed with a new foliage,
Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars."
(Purg., XXXIII, 136.)