Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Cantos XV-XXI
A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved
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- Meditation XLIX: Purgatorio Canto XV
- Meditation L: Purgatorio Canto XVI
- Meditation LI: Purgatorio Canto XVII
- Meditation LII: Purgatorio Canto XVIII
- Meditation LIII: Purgatorio Canto XIX
- Meditation LIV: Purgatorio Canto XX
- Meditation LV: Purgatorio Canto XXI
Meditation XLIX: Purgatorio Canto XV
MedXLIX:1 The Angel of Fraternal Love: Purgatorio Canto XV:1
It is 3pm, and the Poets are on the north-east slope of the Mount travelling due west, when Dante feels the brilliant light shed by the Angel of Fraternal Love who attends the exit from the second terrace. (The zodiac skips like a child, as the sun’s daily path tilts higher or lower in the sky. Here at the spring equinox the noonday sun is on the celestial equator.) The moment allows Dante to exhibit his scientific knowledge of incident and reflected rays. The climbing is easier as they leave, hearing the beatitude sung behind them ‘Beati misericordes: blessed are the merciful.’ Mercy is an aspect of fraternal co-existence, a reciprocal grace ‘for they shall obtain mercy.’
Dante pursues this thought by asking Virgil about that ‘division of partnership’ mentioned by Guido del Duca. Virgil explains that envy destroys fraternal love while shared good increases love. This is a crucial point: that shared does not mean less, and that in the world of the spirit mutual giving increases what is given. Dante is feeding from the Franciscan radical approach to the spiritual life, here, the worship of ‘Lady Poverty’ in a worldly sense in order to achieve riches in a spiritual sense. Divine goodness is drawn to love, like a light ray, and generates increased love, and the greater the number of spirits sharing mutual understanding the greater the love, and like a mirror understanding reflects love and love understanding. Dante here communicates his vision of the true society, the city of God, the community of intelligences, where spirit determines being, rather than material existence.
MedXLIX:2 Examples of Gentleness: Purgatorio Canto XV:82
The third terrace is that of the wrathful, and here Dante in a dream-state is met with counter-examples of gentleness. The first, again, from the life of the Virgin, her words to Christ in the temple, sorrowing and tender, exemplifying love. The second a classical example, Pisistratus replying calmly to his wife concerning a young friend who had kissed his daughter in public, showing judgement and restraint. (There is also a passing reference to the strife between Athene and Poseidon over the naming of Athens.) The third a Biblical reference, to the stoning of Saint Stephen, he forgiving his tormentors. Virgil, to whom Dante’s inner thoughts are visible, then exhorts him to avoid sloth, and they travel on towards the west and the setting sun of this Easter Tuesday, onto the northern slope of the Mount, walking towards the thick smoke-cloud of wrath.
Meditation L: Purgatorio Canto XVI
MedL:1 The Wrathful: Purgatorio Canto XVI:1
Dante wanders behind Virgil like a blind man through the darkness, hearing voices repeating the Agnus Dei, the prayer from the Latin Mass, ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem: Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us, give us peace.’ Here unlike Hell the voices of the spirits are in harmony. It is a Mozartian Mass, the beauty of the Requiem, anachronistically echoing in the mind. A single voice interrogates them in the smoke-cloud, and once more Dante explains his unusual journey, ‘outside modern usage’. Here is Marco Lombardo, Venetian courtier, noted for his liberality, bemoaning the degradation of the mortal world, who asks Dante to pray for him when Dante ascends higher. In return Dante asks for some explanation of the state of the age, coupling Mark’s comments to Guida del Duca’s recent lament for the Romagna.
Mark dismisses the view that the heavens alone dictate fate. There is moral awareness and free will, enabling ethical choice. Dante accepted in the Convivio, and explains in the Paradiso, that Angels govern the planetary spheres, their movement and influence. He does associate traditional astrological qualities with the individual planets, but for Dante those qualities are ultimately divinely inspired, while the greater good creates intellect and will, that are beyond the direct control of the heavens. He is therefore of the school that treats astrological aspects as influences on a life, but not determinants of it. Prophecy through astrology we have seen condemned in the Inferno, in the circles of the fraudulent. The cause of sin is in the self. Mark follows this with the delightful image of the soul as a child, created from the hands of God, full of simplicity, drawn to the good, and following it if love is not impaired. Law is the curb to sin, and the good ruler is needed, who can see and understand the good. The Papacy is corrupt, and spiritual life and temporal life are confused, the Empire wrongly influencing spiritual authority, the Church temporal. Rome was the civilising influence, and Rome separated the two spheres, while now they are linked, an error since it destroys mutual respect and obedience. The sons of Levi, the priests of the Temple, should not inherit wealth but live from the tithe, and devote themselves to spiritual affairs.
Mark laments the current state of Lombardy since the time of Frederick II, though in passing he celebrates a trio of living virtuous men, Corrado da Palazzo, a Brescian Ghelph, the vicar of Charles of Anjou in Florence in 1276, Gherardo da Camino, Captain-General of Treviso till his death in 1306, and Guido da Castello, a gentleman of Treviso, noted for his hospitality and generosity. To the French the Lombards were tricky, and often usurers, perhaps the source of Guido’s nickname, he being in contrast, the ‘honest one’, simplice. Dante’s own anger at the darkness of his times here achieves catharsis through Mark’s condemnation. It is a political wrath that he must leave behind. The tone is softened: the analysis is cool, but the emotion clearly still surges beneath. Just as Oderisi held up to Dante the mirror of fame and artistic pride, so Marco holds the glass of anger, and what Dante sees of himself there he must transcend. Beyond the smoke is the Angel of Meekness.
Meditation LI: Purgatorio Canto XVII
MedLI:1 Examples of Anger: Purgatorio Canto XVII:1
With another beautiful descriptive simile Dante sees the sun setting beyond the western slope of the Mount, as he goes measuring his steps by his master’s. Imagination is stirred not by the reality of the senses but by multi-formed light or Divine will from above. Dante seems to imply the whole impetus of the Vision, an imaginative construct gifted from Heaven, taking over the mind, shutting out the external senses. Images of wrath appear to him. Procne who revenged herself so terribly on Tereus in her pain and anger: Haman ‘full of wrath’ in the Book of Esther: and Queen Amata, from the Aeneid, an angry suicide after the death of Turnus. Dante continue to wind together the three strands of history, Biblical, Classical, and, as in Marco’s speech, Contemporary.
MedLI:2 The Angel of Meekness: Purgatorio Canto XVII:40
The intense light emanating from the Angel strikes his eyes, and his imagining is broken like sleep, and drives him to find the source of the voice that directs them, with the inner eagerness that demands relationship. Purgatory is a community of the spirit, where Hell was divisiveness, an image of the torn and divided city: Florence, Rome or the human city as per Aristotle. Virgil explains the veiled nature of the Angel. The voice gives its assistance without demand, treating the Poets as a man would himself, offering community of spirit, and sharing knowledge, rather than waiting in a spirit of pride and denial for the request. It is rather the spirit of the early Church, and of Franciscan radicalism, that unified embrace of a shared faith and practice.
Virgil urges them onwards before nightfall, when they can no longer climb and free-will is denied them, and as Dante reaches the first step the Angel’s wing fans his face removing the third letter P, and the third beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount is spoken: ‘Beati pacifici: Blessed are the meek who are without anger.’
MedLI:3 The Structure of Purgatory: Purgatorio Canto XVII:70
The Poets are grounded like boats on the shore of the fourth terrace, that of Sloth, where all is appropriately silent. Dante turns to question Virgil, who now explains the nature of Purgatory. Love is inherent in the mortal creature, as natural love that is free of error, or rational love that can err. Once more Dante shows the true nature of his visionary afterlife. The order of sins in Hell is less significant than the fact that sin is a misuse or abuse of freewill. Inferno is the city of lost relationship, the place where the free-will through choosing the wrong objective is separated from others and from Divine Love. Hell is incontinence, violence and fraud: destructive forces that break the community of spirits. Hell is social failing, civil war within the cities of Man and God. Purgatory is the place where sin is purged within the individual self, it is a place where the single one must strive to overcome failings, and embrace virtues. It is a place where the free-will is re-oriented, before it enters into the true community of the Paradiso. The permanent value of Dante’s great Vision is not so much for us in the religious details (though these are often charming and meaningful), and which we may or may not accept as valid, but in its true cognisance of Love and its opposites.
In Inferno Love is misunderstood, abused, and betrayed, as Christ was. In Purgatorio Love is the healing process that re-orients the self towards the living community of shared virtues and graces, where the spiritual life can gain new strength, it is the meeting in the Garden: while in Paradiso Love can be revealed, fully, that risen Love which drives the humanised Universe, the intellect and the imagination. Community, relationship is at the core of Dante’s message. Love in the three Cantiche is first denied and betrayed, then sought and understood, then asserted and entered into. To his argument which is community, Dante brings the three strands of his life, personal, political and spiritual, and the three corresponding elements of history, which is the record of human social relationship: Contemporary, Classical and Religious.
Love is Dante’s great theme, and therefore the source of his endless importance in ethics, social relationship, and the meaning of values. And therefore there is as much meaning in him for the Humanist and the Atheist as for the Christian, because values and ethics are at the heart of what it means to be human.
Virgil explains that rational love is fine when directed with energy towards the virtues. But it fails when it is wrongly attracted towards evil ends (Pride, Envy, Wrath): suffers from insufficient attraction to the good (Sloth): or from excessive attraction towards what is, in moderation, good, but is not essentially good (Avarice, Gluttony, Lust). Love is ‘the seed’ of virtue in the mind, and errors of rational love are the seeds of wrong action. Rational love is instinctively opposed to self-hatred or hatred of the Creator, argues Virgil, and therefore the wrong objectives of rational love must be due to the presence of others, to our existence in community and relationship.
The three evil manifestations of the rational mind’s desires are Pride that wants others to be below us: Envy that is saddened at others being preferred to us (and Jealousy driven by the potential loss which accompanies Envy): and Wrath which is angered at perceived injury and seeks revenge or harm. Dante is here grouping the traditional vices in a way that shows their inter-relationship. Consider in yourself, as I do in myself, the way that Envy (and Jealousy), Pride and Anger feed off and fuel each other. Sexual Jealousy, in particular, is an easily seen interweaving of the forces of bruised pride, envy fuelled by perceived loss, and the resulting anger that is directed at the loved one, the rival, and ultimately the self. All three are aspects of the hurt ego, damaged self-confidence, and unreasonable expectation. All three relate to the attempted possession of what cannot be possessed, another human being or their true position relative to others.
Rational love in the mind should see the good and desire it, but if it fails to pursue it with all the power of its free-will then inadequate love, spiritual apathy, is purged on this terrace, the fourth, that of Sloth.
Lastly there may be excessive love for what is in some way good, but is not essential good. Virgil challenges Dante to understand excessive desire higher up the Mount. There he will find the cornices dedicated to Avarice, excessive love for earthly possessions that are necessary to us in moderation: Gluttony, excessive love for the food we need to survive: and Lust, the excessive desire for the body and its pleasures.
Here is Dante’s answer to the problems of the school of Courtly Love which he first learned to admire in the troubadour poetry, where love is an irrational and potentially harmful force creating pain and distress in the lover. Love here is not in itself destructive, natural love is certainly not, but the rational mind, abusing its reason and free-will, may select the wrong object of love, a destructive one, by choosing what leads to harm: may fail in attention, understanding and energy: or may love excessively what it should love only in moderation.
Meditation LII: Purgatorio Canto XVIII
MedLII:1 The Nature of Love: Purgatorio Canto XVIII:1
The question and answer continues in this lull, Dante neatly contrasting this intellectual eagerness and effort with the sloth that is purged here. Love, Dante asserts and Virgil confirms, is the root of all good action and its opposite. Love is an attraction through the senses, followed by the desire to enter into relationship with that which is loved in order to attain joy. That desire rises like flame. And so far the description of Love may seem to differ little from the tradition of Courtly Love, where love of the beloved enters through the eyes causing intense and unrequited longing, and a painful disturbance of body and mind. But Virgil goes on to say that the object of desire may not always be the right one, even though love itself is always the same: though the wax is the same the seal imprinted in it may not always be good. There is a role for the rational mind in choosing the right objective of desire.
Dante then asks what merit the spirit can have if Love enters from outside through the senses. This is the moral dilemma of Courtly Love, ravaged by something outside its control. Virgil replies that he can say what is apparent to reason, though the rest must wait for Beatrice as a question of faith, and he goes on to explain that the primary drives are innate and free of volition and therefore free of praise or blame, but there is a specific virtue of freewill that allows choice and judgement. By choosing the good the spirit acquires merit. And this virtue of freewill was recognised by the pagan philosophers, Aristotle in particular. Self-control and judgement can overcome desires that rise of necessity without being willed. Freewill is the noble virtue to Beatrice. Virgil warns Dante to be aware of this when he speaks to her.
Here is Dante’s tough answer to the problems of Courtly Love, and his own deep longing for Beatrice. Self-control: the exercise of that powerful will that he clearly possessed himself, or the Commedia would not exist, itself a mighty effort of intellectual control and artistic endurance. It is not a soft answer. Perhaps, faced with unrequited love, or deep sorrow, or extreme temptation, it may seem an impossible answer. Yet we exercise judgement all our lives, and the ethical, the moral, cannot exist in any other way, except by continuous choice. Some desires must be sublimated. Dante’s own earthly desire for the real Beatrice must be transcended. Purgatory is a difficult ascent. The path to Hell is easy.
MedLII:2 The Slothful: Purgatorio Canto XVIII:76
Now in a beautiful moon image it is midnight on Tuesday, and the moon is in the east in Sagittarius, the sign of the active archer, and now the spirits, who are throwing off sloth, appear like a Bacchic chorus, running in a great throng to show their new fervour. Two of them shout out examples of haste: Mary, after the Annunciation, hastening to the hill country, and Julius Caesar, rushing from the siege of Marseilles to attack Pompey’s lieutenants in Catalonia. Virgil asks for information.
Here is Gherardo, the Abbot of San Zeno, and he prophesies and mourns for Alberto, the father of Can Grande, della Scala’s appointment of his deformed and depraved illegitimate son Guiseppe to the post. And two laggard spirits who shout out examples of sloth: The Israelites, delayed in the desert after their escape from Egypt by their own sins, and Aeneas’s followers who stayed behind in Sicily rather than reaching Italy with his elected band.
Dante now wanders in thought, and falls asleep, to dream.
Meditation LIII: Purgatorio Canto XIX
MedLIII:1 The Dream of the Siren: Purgatorio Canto XIX:1
It is some time before dawn, perhaps about four a.m., and the stars of Fortuna Major, in Aquarius and Pisces, are rising, when Dante dreams his second dream, of the Siren, a symbol of temptation, and seduction: the attraction towards the excessive desires: avarice, gluttony and lust. Ulysses first felt that power and then cleverly found a means to resist it. She appears as a crippled, maimed old woman, her true reality, but Dante’s gaze makes her appear attractive, as the rational mind may be seduced into believing that the objects of excessive desire are attractive. A saintly lady, representing the powers of right reason appears and calls to Virgil, earthly philosophy and good judgement, who seizes the Siren within the dream and exposes her. Lust particularly, Dante’s personal weakness, is indicated here. And Dante wakes. Virgil, who has called him at least three times, spurs Dante onwards.
It is dawn of the Wednesday, and they are circling to the west with the risen sun behind them. The Angel of Zeal, points out the way, fans them with his wings, removing another letter P, and, as Dante grieves for the contents of his dream, and no doubt for passages of his past life, the Angel affirms the second Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Beati qui lugent: blessed are those who mourn’. Virgil questions Dante, reminds him how freewill and reason escape the Siren, and points him again towards the neo-platonic vision of the eternal spheres. Remorse is fine but excessive dwelling on evil may be an obstacle. And so, like a falcon, Dante turns towards the lure of spiritual food, and the Poets reach the fifth terrace.
MedLIII:2 The Avaricious: Pope Adrian V: Purgatorio Canto XIX:70
Here the avaricious who were once so fixed on earthly things by their excessive desire are now pinned to the ground by Divine Justice, weeping and repeating part of Psalm 119: ‘Adhaesit pavimento anima mea: my soul cleaveth unto the dust’. Virgil asks the way, and a reply, secretly seeking Dante’s recognition, tells them to continue anti-clockwise around the Mount, the direction of their journey signifying a return in time through purgation to childhood innocence, the first purity of the soul. Virgil assents to Dante granting the spirit who replied that gift of recognition, and the offer of carrying that recognition back to the living. Dante also seems prompted by the words about ‘longing to find the quickest way’.
The spirit who replied is Adrian V, Pope in 1276, for little over a month before his death. He was one of the Fieschi family, the Counts of Lavagna near Genoa. Alagia was his niece, the wife of Moroello III Malaspina. Though a late repentant he has progressed to this circle: how is not explicitly stated. Perhaps it implies that freedom from a failing allows a spirit to progress straight through any given terrace. Dante bends the knee to him, as a holder of Papal Office, but Adrian reminds Dante that all formal relationships are abandoned beyond the grave. And he asks to be remembered to his surviving niece Alagia.
Meditation LIV: Purgatorio Canto XX
MedLIV:1 Examples of Poverty and Liberality: Purgatorio Canto XX:1
Dante, unsatisfied in his questioning, bows to Adrian’s will, and the Poets move on along the cliff face. Dante raises his voice here against Avarice, the she-wolf (of Inferno Canto I also), and again asks for that prophetic saviour of Italy (the Greyhound of Inferno Canto I) who will banish avarice from the world. Where his hopes had once been pinned perhaps on Can Grande, by the time of writing the Purgatorio Dante may well have experienced the rise and final fall of the Emperor Henry VII, Count of Luxembourg, elected king of the Romans in 1308. Henry aimed to establish Imperial power in Italy and be crowned in Rome. Initially gaining Pope Clement V’s support he moved against Guelph Florence and King Robert of Naples, but Philip IV of France changed the Pope’s allegiance, and though crowned at Rome in 1312 Henry’s initiative had already failed, and his death in 1313 of malaria, ended the hopes of his supporters and allies. The Papacy remained in exile in Avignon, and Dante was left once more hoping against hope for a ‘saviour’, and for the return of the Papacy to Rome.
Now we hear examples of poverty and liberality: from the life of Mary, the humble manger at Bethlehem: from Classical history, Fabricius the Consul and Censor, refusing gifts and bribes: and, from Christian history, Saint Nicholas (known as Saint Nicholas of Bari), and his gifts of dowries to three young girls to protect their honour.
MedLIV:2 Hugh Capet: Purgatorio Canto XX:43
Avarice is a part of Dante’s political perception, and we now have a rapid transit through the history of the avaricious French Capetian dynasty to 1300, told by Hugh Capet, King of France (987-996) here confused with his father Hugh the Great (Duke of the Franks, Count of Paris, died 956) who was the supposed son of a butcher. When Louis V died in 987, and the Carlovingian Dynasty ended it was Hugh Capet who succeeded, and founded the Capetian Dynasty, not his son and successor Robert I. On Louis V’s death, his uncle Duke Charles of Lorraine, son of Louis IV, was the only survivor of the Carlovingian line. He was captured by Hugh and imprisoned till his death in 991. He was not a monk (‘one who was clothed in the grey robe’), and Dante may have confused him with the last of the Merovingians Childeric III who was deposed by Pepin le Bref in 751 and compelled to become a monk. Between 1060 and 1300 four Philip’s (I-IV) and four Louis’s (VI-IX) ruled France between them. Hugh gives a mixture of history and prophetic statement of things to come: the Flemish revenge at the battle of Courtrai in 1302 for the treachery of Philip the Fair and his brother Charles de Valois towards the Count of Flanders in 1299: Charles I of Anjou’s gaining of Provence in 1246 by marrying Beatrice the daughter of Raymond Berenger: and the French Kings’ holding of Ponthieu, Gascony and Normandy, a source of friction between England and France for many years: Charles of Anjou’s invasion of Italy and crowning as counter-king of Sicily (to Manfred) in 1265, at the invitation of Clement IV, and his defeat of Conradin, Manfred’s usurped nephew at Tagliacozzo in 1268: Charles de Valois’s entry into Florence in November 1301, and his support for the Blacks, and his nickname of Lack-land: Charles the Lame, King of Naples, the son of Charles I of Anjou, and his defeat by Peter III’s admiral Roger di Loria in 1284 while trying to assist his father in retaking Sicily, and his ‘sale’ of his daughter in 1305 to the aging Azzo VIII da Este: and finally Pope Boniface VIII’s being seized at Anagni (his birthplace, forty miles south-east of Rome) by agents of Philip IV, the Fair, and dying in a few days in October 1303.
Hugh’s tirade allows Dante to attack the French influence over the Papacy and Italy, making Philip IV the new Pilate, in delivering Boniface to his enemies the Colonnesi, as Pilate delivered Jesus to his crucifixion, and in persecuting the Order of the Knights Templar from 1307 to gain their treasures. Dante subtly places a somewhat un-Christian desire for God’s vengeance in Hugh’s mouth rather than in his own.
MedLIV:3 Examples of Avarice: the Earthquake: Purgatorio Canto XX:97
Hugh now explains that the examples of poverty and liberality in their daylight prayers are replaced by examples of avarice at night. These are paired Classical and Biblical instances: Dido’s brother Pygmalion who murdered her husband Sychaeus for gold (Aeneid I 350) and King Midas: Achan who ignored Joshua’s dedication of captured gold to the Lord, and Sapphira and Ananias who were rebuked by Saint Peter for hypocrisy in retaining part of their wealth: Heliodorus the treasurer of King Seleucus, turned from the treasury by a rider whose horse struck at him, and Polymnestor the son-in-law of Priam who murdered Priam’s son Polydorus for his wealth. Finally there is Crassus the Triumvir, killed in battle by the Parthians, who had molten gold poured down his throat in mockery of his love of gold.
Suddenly the Poets feel an earthquake as the Mount trembles. Dante is gripped by cold. The quake is compared to the shaking of the Isle of Delos when Latona gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. The spirits shout out the Gloria with joy, and the Poets stand there, as still as the shepherds when the Angel came to announce Christ’s birth. Then Dante is possessed by the desire for knowledge of the earthquake’s cause, and by fear. Here again is a reminder that the desire of the intellect for truth is a legitimate one, that Dante is on a journey of enquiry, and that right use of freewill, and rational love freed from appetite, direct the mind towards that union of light, reason and love which is the Godhead. Dante is careful to assemble the ‘right’ authorities who validate the ‘truth’. In doing so he further legitimises the co-existence of Classical mythology and philosophy with Christian truth and devotion, illuminated by examples of authoritative individuals, which is characteristic of the Italian Renaissance that followed.
Meditation LV: Purgatorio Canto XXI
MedLV:1 Statius: Purgatorio Canto XXI:1
Now the two Poets meet a third, Statius. Virgil is Dante’s literary master, and, through the Aeneid, inspirer of the early Cantos of Inferno. He was celebrated in the Middle Ages as a prophet because of the interpretation of the fourth Eclogue as a prediction of the Incarnation. And he had revealed Rome’s Imperial mission through the tale of Aeneas’s wanderings, a mission Dante treated as divinely inspired, so that Classical and Roman history was necessary and complementary to Christian history. As historian, prophet and poet he was the perfect choice as Dante’s master, in a way that say the irreverent, sceptical, humanist Ovid could not have been. Why then the need for a new character, Statius, to help guide the Poets further? The problem is Virgil’s paganism. As a representative of earthly philosophy he is complete, but we are now in transition towards the divine philosophy that Beatrice will represent, and Dante therefore introduces the poet Publius Papinius Statius, who was born at Naples around 50AD (not Toulouse), and died there in about 96AD. He lived at Rome in Vespasian’s and Domitian’s reigns, and dedicated his Thebaid to the latter, an epic about the War of the Seven against Thebes. His Achilleid, dealing with the Trojan War, was left unfinished. His shorter poems the Silvae were unknown to Dante. Statius according to Dante converted to Christianity, so that he has not only gained entry to Purgatory through his secret faith, but is also able to comment on religious truths in a way that is not appropriate for Virgil.
Dante’s knowledge is a thirst that cannot be quenched except by that metaphorical water of Truth that Christ spoke of to the woman of Samaria at the well. So he goes along burning with desire for answers, and grieving over the just punishment of the spirits. Statius appears, in a likeness of Christ’s appearance on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel. And Statius then gives them Christian greeting. Dante has therefore pointed triply to the Christian transition here, and reinforces it in Virgil’s mention of his own ‘eternal exile’ in Limbo, and his comment that he will guide Dante ‘as far as my knowledge can lead’. The boundary of earthly understanding is being signalled, Virgil does not know the cause of the earthquake, and it is Statius who will provide the answer. Virgil died before the Incarnation, and before the opportunity for conversion, while Statius lived after that boundary. The two Roman worlds of before Christ and after Christ here meet in that contemporaneousness of the Christian Moment, its eternal resonance that the Commedia exemplifies. Rome is unified. An essential continuity of history is affirmed. All the notes of time and intellect are sounded together in this Divine space of the Commedia.
MedLV:2 The Cause of the Earthquake: Purgatorio Canto XXI:34
Statius, threading the needle’s eye of Dante’s wish for knowledge, gives him hope, and explains that the earthquake has a purpose and is not unusual. Natural causes are inoperative here, because beyond the threshold of Purgatory proper only Heavenly causes take effect. Earthquakes here are due to a purged soul realising its new state and beginning the ascent towards Paradise. The free will previously gripped by desire for the punishment of purgation, as it was previously gripped by the desire for sin, is now altered, and empowered to rise, in complete freedom. Statius, who has been on this terrace for over five hundred years, purging his major sin of Avarice, now feels his will free, and strengthened to progress, and so can travel upwards with the Poets. His sudden feeling of freedom and empowerment was the cause of the Earthquake that the spirits celebrated, which also symbolises or echoes the ‘earthquake’ of the Incarnation and that of the Harrowing of Hell, the quake that separates the Roman Empire before Christ with Rome after Christ, and the earthquake of Dante’s own spirit and poetic imagination that carried him beyond the tradition and into the new realms of the Vita Nuova and the Commedia.
MedLV:3 Statius recognises Virgil: Purgatorio Canto XXI:76
A sweet moment. Virgil now understands the cause of the earthquake and courteously asks who Statius is. Statius explains, referring to Titus’s destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70AD, in Vespasian’s reign, as a historical marker, an event deemed by Dante to avenge the Crucifixion, and Judas’s treachery. Not yet a convert, Statius was crowned Poet at Rome, wrote the Thebaid, but left the Achilleid unfinished, and he proclaims the Aeneid as his influence. Virgil tells Dante to be silent, but Dante makes the point to the reader that in the most honest spirit, truth will out, and laughter and tears are produced despite the controlling will, so that he smiles. Statius picks up on this, and looks Dante in the eye to question the reason for his amusement. So that Virgil seeing Dante caught in a dilemma, allows him to speak. Dante explains that this is Virgil, and that his own smile had no other motive (interestingly Statius cannot read what is in Dante’s mind here, though Virgil can). And in a final paragraph, of great beauty of feeling, Virgil expresses the equality and humility of the spiritual life, while Statius expresses the love, warmth and respect that is generated by intellectual affinity.