Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Cantos XXII-XXVIII
A. S. Kline Authored by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.
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- Meditation LVI: Purgatorio Canto XXII
- Meditation LVII: Purgatorio Canto XXIII
- Meditation LVIII: Purgatorio Canto XXIV
- Meditation LIX: Purgatorio Canto XXV
- Meditation LX: Purgatorio Canto XXVI
- Meditation LXI: Purgatorio Canto XXVII
- Meditation LXII: Purgatorio Canto XXVIII
Meditation LVI: Purgatorio Canto XXII
MedLVI:1 The Angel of Liberality: Purgatorio Canto XXII:1
With a single word ‘sitiunt: they thirst’ from the fourth Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, the Angel of Liberality has erased the fifth letter P from Dante’s forehead. The Beatitude both approves Dante’s hunger and thirst for knowledge and virtue, and anticipates the excessive hunger and thirst of the gluttonous on the next terrace. Dante now moves on more easily, listening to Virgil who comments to Statius that virtuous love always inspires love in return when it is known. Statius’s love for him had been revealed by Statius’s younger contemporary, Juvenal, when he descended into Limbo (he died 140AD). Virgil asserts his friendship, an aspect of love’s liberality and warmth, and questions Statius about his Avarice.
Statius smiles and emphasises how, as we have seen with Dante’s smile previously, true reasons may be hidden and cause doubt (Dante is subtly hinting at the concealment by Statius of his own inferred conversion to Christianity). His own excess was not Avarice but excessive and wasteful spending. The prodigal and extravagant, those who dissipate resources on idle things, are punished in the fourth circle of Inferno, and Statius claims he only realised his error on reading Virgil’s lines (Aeneid III 56-57) ironically implying that gold may as well drive all human behaviour. Statius then recognised all the dimensions of wrong associated with wealth-driven behaviour. He ends with a passing dig at the ‘shorn heads’ of the Church.
Virgil points out that Statius’s Thebaid (which begins with an invocation to Clio, the Pagan Muse of History) is a Pagan rather than a Christian tale, and asks how his conversion came about. Statius, with answering use of metaphors, refers in turn to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue where he prophesies the return of a Golden Age, and which Dante and his age interpreted as presaging the advent of Christianity, and to his association with the early Christians, allegedly persecuted under Domitian. Statius’s question about others of the ancients prompts Virgil to reel off a long list of examples of those who are with Homer and himself in Limbo. They are Roman playwrights, satirists and poets (Terence, Caecilius, Plautus, Varro and Persius), Greek playwrights and poets (Euripides, Antiphon, Simonides and Agathon), followed by female characters (Antigone, Deiphyle, Argia, Ismene, Hypsipyle, Manto, Thetis, and Deidamia with her sisters) appearing in Statius’s own verses.
MedLVI:2 Examples of Temperance: Purgatorio Canto XXII:115
The trio of Poets reach the sixth terrace after 10.00am on the Wednesday morning (four ‘handmaidens of the day’, that is hours, have gone since dawn at 6am) and they continue their anti-clockwise ascent of the Mount. Dante listens to the other two poets conversing about poetry until they reach a tree, symbolic of natural plenty, heavy with fruit and drenched by a stream cascading down its inverted cone, so that it forms a cornucopia. Its perfume we will discover creates the desire for food and drink, and tantalises the spirits who are purging themselves of gluttony. A voice warns them towards temperance, counter to gluttony, and gives them examples, first from the life of the Virgin, the marriage at Cana again, then alternating Classical and Biblical examples: from the writings of Thomas Aquinas who recommended sobriety to women and young people, quoting Valerius Maximus II i. 3 ‘Vini usus olim romanis feminis ignotus fuit: the use of wine was once unknown to young Roman women.’ : Daniel who refused the king’s meat and wine: The Golden Age referred to by Ovid and others, and finally John the Baptist eating honey and locusts in the desert.
Meditation LVII: Purgatorio Canto XXIII
MedLVII:1 The Gluttonous: Purgatorio Canto XXIII:1
Dante now hears a new singing, of a verse from the Miserere, ‘O Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall declare thy praise’. Mouths, which were in life dedicated to gluttony, here are freed for repentant singing and weeping. The spirits are wasted by hunger, purging their gluttony, and Dante gives us a Classical and a Biblical parallel, Erysichthon who committed sacrilege against the corn-goddess Ceres (Demeter), was persecuted by hunger, in retribution, and ate his own flesh: and Mary of Jerusalem who, out of starvation, consumed her own child during Titus’s terrible siege of the city. The scent of the fruit and water from the tree create a desire for food and drink that cannot be satisfied here, like the torments of Tantalus, and the spirits’ cavernous faces fancifully form the word ‘omo’ or ‘Man’.
MedLVII:2 Forese Donati: Purgatorio Canto XXIII:37
Dante recognises the voice alone of Forese Donati, his former friend, and is robbed of fluent speech by his desire to know why the spirits look as they do. Forese, the brother of Corso and Piccarda, (and a distant relation of Dante’s wife Gemma Donati, with whose brother Forese di Manetto Donati he has sometimes been confused) explains the power of the tree’s fragrance, but also its solace since it leads spiritually to the tree of the crucifixion and the redemption from sin. Forese gives us an individual insight into Dante’s life following the death of Beatrice, a life of spiritual neglect and dissipation. There are some scurrilous sonnets extant between Forese (nicknamed Bicci Novello) and Dante (Dante Gabriel Rossetti translates them in his Early Italian Poets) that give a flavour of it and seem to confirm Forese’s reputation for gluttony and lust. Forese taunts Dante in verse regarding the failure to avenge Geri del Bello Alighieri, whom we met in Inferno XXIX. Dante taunts Forese for his rapacity and his neglect of his wife Nella, but now makes amends, since it seems that Nella’s tears and prayers have sent Forese swiftly through Purgatory to this sixth terrace.
Here is an excuse for Forese, praising Nella’s goodness, to attack the immodesty of the shameless Florentine women, with their fashions that exposed the naked breasts in public, and he prophesies some imminent decree or other against it.
Forese questions Dante regarding his solid body, and Dante hints once more at the life not merely of philosophical or religious error that Virgil rescued him from, but also of that moral unworthiness that he and Forese had experienced together. Virgil is the companion who leads him to Beatrice, and will leave him with her as guide. Statius is the cause of the earthquake. Dante is being drawn to think of his personal life, by meeting Forese, and there is more to follow.
Meditation LVIII: Purgatorio Canto XXIV
MedLVIII:1 Bonagiunta of Lucca: Purgatorio Canto XXIV:1
Dante suggests Statius the Christian is slowed by his Pagan companion Virgil, as they speed onwards like a ship, and he himself continues to question Forese. He asks after Forese’s sister Piccarda, who is in Paradise, and whom we will meet later in the sphere of the Moon. Among the barely recognisable shrivelled faces Forese points to Bonagiunta. Bonagiunta Orbicciani degli Overardi was a notary and poet, of Lucca, who died between 1296 and 1300. Jacopo da Lentino (il Notaio, the Notary), Guittone del Viva known as Fra Guittone, of Arezzo (1230-1294: one of the Frati Gaudenti) in his first poetic period, and Bonagiunta, were prominent members of the Sicilian school of Poetry, continued in Central Italy, based on Provençal traditions. Their style lacked the spontaneity and sweetness of the dolce stil nuovo developed by Guido Guinicelli of Bologna, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante. Dante’s personal strand of thought has led him to poetry, via Forese.
Here too are Pope Martin IV, the glutton, who died of a surfeit of eels, and other examples of that weakness: Ubaldino della Pila the father of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa, whom we met in the Ninth Circle of Inferno, Bonifazio Archbishop of Ravenna, and Marchese Argogliosi of Forlì, a noted drinker.
MedLVIII:2 Poetry and Florence: Purgatorio Canto XXIV:34
Dante singles out Bonagiunta, who prophesies Dante’s meeting with Gentucca, the beautiful wife of Cosciorino Fondora of Lucca. She was a friend to Dante between 1314 and 1316, when he was at Lucca. She was still unmarried in 1300 (and did not wear the benda, or headdress reserved for married women, and, when white, for widows.) Clearly Dante seeks to stress the innocence of this friendship and patronage. Bonagiunta recognises Dante as the author of the first canzone of the Vita Nuova, ‘Ladies who have knowledge of Love’, and Dante replies in a neatly turned verse indicating that the heart of the dolce stil nuovo was that Love itself dictated to the poets of that school, and they were driven to write by Love and its emotional and intellectual truth, not mere literary ambition.
The flock of spirits passes on, while Forese is left as a straggler, speaking to Dante a phrase of peculiarly deep feeling, combining friendship, love, pathos and poignancy, since it involves Dante’s own death and purgation: ‘When will I see you again?’ Dante expresses his desire to leave his life, and the bitterness of the state of Italy and Florence, which leads Forese to prophesy once more, concerning the fate of his own brother Corso, Podestà of Bologna, in 1283 and 1288, and of Pistoia, in 1289, and leader of the Florentine Neri.
Following a revolutionary period in Florence between the ‘magnates’ (the great men) and the ‘popolo’ (the tradesmen) that ended in the Ordinances of Justice in 1293, the oligarchy of Guelph families, Papal supporters, regained power. The Guelph party then split after 1295 into what became the Black and White Guelphs. Corso Donati led the conservative magnate Black faction, and Vieri de’ Cerchi, a banker, led the Whites. Corso was then banished and went to Rome, where he fomented discontent with the Florentine leadership, and in the spring of 1300 Florence decided to prosecute a group of Florentine businessmen at the Papal Court for conspiring against the leadership. Dante as a White, and for two months a Prior, one of the six supreme officers of the City, concurred. Corso and others eventually induced Boniface to bring in Charles de Valois to broker a peace in Florence between the exiled factions. Charles and his army entered Florence on November 1st 1301. Charles then favoured the Blacks, and there was a coup d’état which led to the exile or prosecution of the Whites, including of course Dante who had left the city, was sentenced in absentia in January 1302 to exile, and in March condemned to death again in absentia. Corso subsequently tried to gain supreme power. Suspected of intrigue with his father-in-law Ugucione della Faggiuola the Ghibelline captain, and the Papal legate Napoleone Orsini, to overthrow the government, and become lord of Florence, he was condemned to death when the plot was discovered (on October 6th 1308). He fled through the Porta Santa Croce but was overtaken and killed by Catalan mercenaries in the service of the King of Naples. He was said to have thrown himself from his horse and been lanced to death on the ground. Dante develops this equine imagery as a metaphor of runaway ambition leading to destruction.
Forese now strides away so as not to lose time, and he seems like a horseman of a different kind, one riding out to win honour. There is a distinct feel here of another friendship, another deeply felt individual, one met in Hell, Brunetto Latini, last seen not like one condemned but like one running for a prize.
MedLVIII:3 Examples of Excess: The Angel: Purgatorio Canto XXIV:100
Forese vanishes ahead and the three Poets reach a second fruit-tree, grafted from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Eve ate from. Dante therefore associates the excess desire being purged on this terrace with the excessive desire for knowledge, and the disobedience, that led Eve to eat of the apple, and give some also to Adam to eat. ‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.’ (Genesis 3:7). A voice now cites examples of excess, one Classical, the Centaurs who fought Theseus and the Lapiths after drinking to excess: the second Biblical, the men whom Gideon refused as companions for their excessive method of drinking water.
They reach the Angel of Temperance, glowing like glass or metal in a furnace, who tells Dante the way, and he turns back towards his teachers, like a good student. With a beautiful image of the May breeze, the Angel’s wings erase another letter P from his forehead, while the Angel speaks an interpretation of the Fourth Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.’ used also at the start of Canto XXII. Dante is preaching the Middle Way, but in a Christian context, where grace illuminates, sensation is moderated, and hunger and desire is for what is just and right.
Meditation LIX: Purgatorio Canto XXV
MedLIX:1 The Unified Soul: Purgatorio Canto XXV:1
It is the afternoon of Wednesday, around 2pm, with the sun in Taurus, and Scorpio its opposite sign set below the horizon, as they climb to the seventh and last terrace of purgation, that of Lust. With a series of similes and analogies: the young stork, the arrow of speech, Meleager, and the reflected image in a mirror, Dante expresses his need to question further as to the nature of the spirit bodies, and Virgil replies. Statius is called on to explain, and courteously does so. Dante has an opportunity now to display his partly scientific, partly philosophical ‘knowledge’ of human embryology and growth, and add his own speculative explanation of the ‘shades’ of the dead.
Impregnation of the female partner with semen, Dante’s absorbed ‘perfect blood’, having the power to invigorate, or add life, causes the blood of both partners to be mixed, the male active, the female passive. This mixed blood with its power to engender life, creates the embryo and develops organs. The embryo possesses life, shared with the vegetable kingdom, and added to it sensation and feeling, shared with the animal kingdom. Dante here parts company with the teaching of Averroës.
Averroës, Ibn Rushd, 1128-1198 AD, was an Arabian physician and commentator on Aristotle. He espoused a sceptical philosophy, and as ‘the Commentator’ in Latin translation c. 1250 made Aristotle’s philosophy supreme in the Middle Ages. Dante placed him among the group of wise men in Limbo. He taught, ‘in error’, that the human intellect being potential not actualised, discursive rather than intuitive like the angels, could not have its seat in the actual organs in the way that animals have intelligence, and so existed independently of physical form. He does however make self-consciousness a characteristic of the rational or intellectual soul, as life is of the vegetable soul, and sensation of the animal soul. ‘The action of the intellect is likened to a circle, because it turns round upon itself, and comprehends itself.’ He suggests that the intellect in man is a facet of the universal intellect, loaned temporarily, and reuniting with the universal intellect after death.
Dante rejects this and proclaims the alternative ‘truth’, that as soon as the brain is complete God, delighting in it as a work of nature, breathes the rational spirit into it, which combines with what is already there (traditionally the natural spirit of sensations and feelings sited in the liver and the vital spirit of life sited in the heart, roughly corresponding to Averroës’ vegetable and animal souls, the ideas deriving from Aristotle, whose De Anima was particularly influential.) and forms the unified soul which persists after death. While the Averroists viewed the emotions as a manifestation of matter, the understanding of the mind was a transient implant of the universal intellect, which would separate from the defunct feelings and individual will at death. For Dante this would preclude the ongoing unity of the spirit, the ability to exercise freewill and to suffer in Hell and Purgatory, and the relinquishment of individual memory and knowledge. So the single soul ‘lives and feels and is conscious of itself’ beyond the grave. Dante now explains how.
After death the unified soul leaves the body, retaining memory, intellect and will, and is sent to its location in the afterlife. The formative power existing in the soul imprints the air around it, and stamps its likeness on its surroundings, so that the ‘shadow’ or ‘shade’ follows the spirit as a flame follows the fire. The outward appearance is a direct manifestation of the inward feelings, desires and affections. The form expresses the soul. So the spirits purging gluttony desire to eat and drink, and suffer hunger and thirst, and appear emaciated.
Dante’s analogy with Meleager whose spirit was linked to the firebrand, and the reflection in the mirror that moves with the object reflected, are now understood. Just such a linkage exists between the unified soul and its ‘shade’.
MedLIX:2 The Seventh Terrace: Purgatorio Canto XXV:109
Now the Poets reach the seventh terrace. As the first terrace where Pride is purged makes us look back to that all-pervading failing of Inferno, Satan’s sin, which is also one of Dante’s major weaknesses, so the last terrace in purging Lust, his other major weakness, from the spirit looks forward to the imminent meeting with a transfigured Beatrice, beyond physical desire. So Dante’s own two great failings directly link Purgatory with Inferno and with Paradise, as we follow the individual and personal strand of his journey. Pride is humbled by a burden: Lust is purged by the flames. The Poets walk along the narrow path by the cliff, hearing the spirits singing in the fire: they sing the Matin hymn, with its opening words, as given prior to the revision of the Breviary by Pope Urban VIII in 1631: ‘Summae Deus Clementae: God of supreme mercy,’ which contains a prayer for protection against lustfulness. The third verse ran ‘Lumbos iecurque morbidum Flammis adure congruis, Accincti ut artus excubent Luxu remoto pessimo: burning the loins and unwholesome passion with like flames, so that the limbs purged might sleep free of evil Lust.’ Dante both gazes at the spirits in the fire, and is forced to turn away, staring at his feet, and into his own past. Then the spirits shout out examples of chastity: Mary at the Annunciation, and Diana preserving the chastity of her sacred band by driving away the fallen Callisto. So the spirits go purging themselves, alternately singing, and shouting out examples of virtue and chaste marriage.
Meditation LX: Purgatorio Canto XXVI
MedLX:1 The Lustful: the Poets: Purgatorio Canto XXVI:1
The Poets are walking in a southerly direction on the Western slope of the Mount, when the spirits question Dante’s living presence among them. Dante now parallels the Second Circle of Inferno, that of the carnal sinners. Here too couples meet, but not entangled together in passion, more in blind friendship of desire as they pass, like ants, not like Paolo and Francesca’s doves, and they shout out examples of Biblical and Classical excessive lust: Sodom and Gomorrah, the sinful Cities of the Plain (Genesis XIX): and Pasiphae who hid herself in a wooden frame, made by Daedalus to resemble a heifer, so that she could mate with a white bull from the sea. One set of sinners are the homosexual Sodomites of Caesar’s persuasion, the others are heterosexuals who were beastly in their excesses. Then they part like two like crowds of cranes flying, where in Hell the carnal sinners were like a flight of starlings.
The sinners are amazed at Dante, like men from the wilds entering a city, that focal place in Dante’s mind of sin and lust, but there is plenty of courtesy here, this is the place after all where the passionate excesses of Courtly Love are also purged. Dante, who leant his poetic art following the schools of Provence, now meets a predecessor, and forerunner of the dolce stil nuovo. The spirit is the poet Guido Guinicelli, and with a graceful passing reference to Statius’s Thebaid and the story of Lycurgus and Hypsipyle, Dante pays him tribute. Guido (c1235-1276), was valued highly by Dante and his companions, as ‘their’ philosopher. He was a member of the Ghibelline Principi family of Bologna, and was Podestà of Castefranco in 1270 and exiled in 1274 with the Lambertazzi. He began as an imitator of the later style of Guittone d’Arezzo. His best work, including the canzone of the Gentle Heart (‘Al cor gentil ripara sempre Amore: Love always shelters in the gentle heart, as birds do in the green shade of the trees. No love in nature before the gentle heart, nor the gentle heart before love.’), inspired the Florentine School of Guido Cavalcanti, Dante and others. Dante’s words are unusually humble, but Guinicelli’s reply soon endorses Dante’s exceptional poetic worth! Not blatant Pride perhaps: but Dante’s weaknesses of Lust and Pride meet again on this terrace: perhaps he is being self-aware and there is an ironic humour running below the smooth surface.
Dante too had suffered from Love’s attack on the heart, through the eyes, and along the bloodstream, he too had grappled with that irrational force, and by bringing his intellect to bear had at last understood the way to transcend the poetic thought of his youth. The destructive power of unrequited love, a great theme of Courtly Love poetry, was a theme he well understood, aspects of which are documented in the early parts of the Vita Nuova, where torment due to passion in life or after death is a matter of indifference to the intoxicated lover, reminiscent of the radical, secular thrust of Heloise’s letters, and of Aucassin and Nicolette. But the Vita Nuova then sweeps on towards a new ennobled and positive view of Love as a redeeming force, initiated by Beatrice’s death. She is beyond the physical now, an untouchable. Love is unrequited on earth but now fuels a spiritual journey towards Beatrice as the emblem of Divine grace. Love grants the lover the power to progress towards Paradise. Reason and Intellect give him the power to understand and to learn. Free will grants him the power to turn Reason towards Divine Love and so climb the mountain of virtue. Beatrice though she will still elicit a deep physical response in Dante at the summit of Purgatory, though her beauty is still apparent to him, though we cannot but feel an emotional if not an erotic charge from her presence, offers him a route to sublimation, as her spiritual authority leads him onwards and eventually beyond her. That concept of the erotic is anyway not central to Dante’s age. Strong feeling is allowed to fully accompany deep religious experience: it was manifest in the religious orders of St Francis and St Clare, in the lives of ordinary holy men and women, a world of miracles, conversions, devotions and ecstasies. The Church is the Bride of God. The Virgin is worshipped as virgin, mother, and goddess. The physical realities of Christianity have shape in the flesh. But the sexual component is subsumed in the acceptance of physical reality its feelings, sufferings, compassion, passion, and then transcended in the spiritual. Beatrice is saint and angel, woman and beloved. She is redeeming grace, and nobility, beauty and radiance, divine philosophy and a mirror of God. She is faith, hope and joy, charity and empathy, goodness and virtue. She is his transcendent figure pointing the way to the uttermost source of Light, and she is, she is, Beatrice.
Ah, says Guido, this man was a better poet than I, il miglior fabbro, one who surpassed Giraut de Borneil, the ‘master of the Troubadours’, and Fra Guittone of the Sicilian School. And he vanishes through the fire like a fish through water. The better poet is Arnaut Daniel, the Provençal poet, who flourished between 1180 and 1200 with Richard Coeur de Lion among his patrons. (See Ezra Pound’s poem ‘Near Perigord’ in his collection Lustra). Arnaut was a master of the trobar clus or hidden style, inventing the sestina form, and it was for this above all that Dante and others regarded him so highly perhaps, rather than his sentiment. In the Provençal poem Dante now invents for him, its sweet French rhythm enclosed in terza rima, he refers to the style that hides, and is here open, and reminds Dante to consider his own punishment to come, for Lust, as Dante himself goes onward. And Arnaut before likewise vanishing in the flames, gives Dante a summary of Dante’s own journey, from folly to the promise of joy, from destructive passion to spiritual hope, leaving him with that reminder of his own purgation to be experienced after death. Dante has expressed his poetic, his amorous, and his spiritual journey in this Canto, winding the threads together, making out of life, love and poetry a stairway to the Heavens.
Meditation LXI: Purgatorio Canto XXVII
MedLXI:1 The Angel of Chastity: Purgatorio Canto XXVII:1
The sun is setting at the base of the Mount, at approximately 6pm here on the western slopes, and it is dawn in Jerusalem, midnight in Spain (Libra on the meridian there) and noon in India. The Angel of Chastity appears beyond the flames singing the sixth beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount: Beati mundo cordo: blessed are the pure in heart.’
Though all three poets go through the flames, Dante is absorbed in self-knowledge. He will pass this way again, and must enter the fire. Virgil reassures him, though Dante is troubled by conscience, and it is the hope of seeing Beatrice that rouses him, her name alone that stirs him, and like a child he is tempted by a promise to go on. With a poet before and behind him he steps into the fire, hotter than molten glass, while Virgil comforts him, and holds out again the promise of seeing Beatrice’s eyes. On the far side another voice sings a vitally appropriate verse from Matthew (25:34), the separation of the sheep from the goats: note the traditional association of goats with Lust, while the sheep of righteousness are such as provide protection to the exile and aid the stranger. The sheep enter the kingdom: the goats are condemned to the everlasting fire.
The sun finally sets here, higher up the Mount, and the Poets stop to rest as night overtakes them, and the power to climb vanishes. And to reinforce the image of the sheep and the goats, Dante makes himself the goat, now reflecting deeply on his past life, while the other two are the shepherds guarding him. And as he reflects, seeing the promise and hope of the stars, brighter now, from the confines of the rock and of his past, he slips into ‘prophetic’ sleep.
MedLXI:2 The Third Dream: Purgatorio Canto XXVII:94
Just before sunrise, at the hour when Venus, the planet of Love, shines, in Pisces, the sign of religion, Dante dreams, and Leah and Rachel appear as the symbols of the active and contemplative life. Leah gathers the flowers of the field for a garland: Rachel contemplates life in the mirror of mind. In Convivio IV (xvii 9-10) Dante quoted Aristotle in the Ethics X, and Christ in Luke’s Gospel in his speech to Martha and Mary, as praising both ways as roads to good, but that the way of contemplation is the superior road. Philosophy and reason move the spirit nearer to perfection. Here Dante takes the balanced view that both paths lead to the truth. He does not seem to align the active life with the beatitude of this world dependent on earthly virtues, and that of contemplation with philosophy and the theological virtues, but rather it suggests that he is honouring both active virtue and philosophy equally. Nevertheless it is Rachel whom Beatrice sits with in heaven, as Inferno II attests. It is Dawn. Dante wakes.
MedLXI:3 Virgil’s Last Words to Dante: Purgatorio Canto XXVII:115
Here in this last speech of Virgil’s to Dante is the full hope and promise of the Purgatorio. Virgil has guided Dante to the summit of the stair. He has brought him to long for the final sweetness, the fruition of understanding and love, though he himself cannot pass on towards it. This is the greatness and glory of the teacher and the master, to point the way to a promised land that he himself may not reach. Virgil has attained the end of his own knowledge, of earthly philosophy, of the ancient pagan wisdom, of his own poetry and his own loyalties. Skill and art are complete for him. Ahead is the Earthly Paradise, signalled by the light of the sun and the beauty of uncultivated nature. Here Dante can rest while those eyes, Beatrice’s twin suns of virtue, move towards him. And here are his final words. Dante’s spirit is purged and freed, his will, and this was the objective of the journey through Inferno and along the Mount, is whole and freely directed towards the good, and with that Virgil crowns him and mitres him over himself, signifying that the kingdoms of the earth, the Empire and the Church, are symbolically superseded in the redeemed and individual soul, and that the self is finally in ruler-ship over itself. Moral innocence is recovered. Divine Philosophy will absorb earthly philosophy: and Revelation will enhance wisdom, beyond all human institutions.
Meditation LXII: Purgatorio Canto XXVIII
MedLXII:1 Matilda: The Earthly Paradise: Purgatorio Canto XXVIII:1
Dante, empowered by his freed will, takes the lead now, and with Virgil (who from now on remains silent) and Statius, he enters the Divine wood that contrasts, in its natural beauty, and innocence, with the dark wood of Canto I of Inferno where the journey first began. Just as at first in Inferno he no longer remembered how he entered that first dark wood through sin, so now, reborn, in this mirror wood, he forgets his first entry into that fallen state through new-found virtue. In a passage of sustained poetic power (see Shelley’s lovely translation of these verses) Dante welcomes the breeze, blowing from the East, the direction of the Resurrection and the rising sun of this Easter Thursday. He compares the light air to the south-easterly Sirocco wind through the pine-woods on Chiassi’s shore (Chiassi, near Ravenna, was the Classis of the Romans, a naval harbour), and then moves on until he reaches the stream of Lethe, the purest of waters, that takes away the memory of sin. With his eyes, those emblems of the cardinal virtues, he looks beyond the stream, and sees a lady there, gathering flowers and singing. She is Matilda, a symbol of the active spiritual life, Beatrice’s counterpart, who gathers the flowers of life, and sings its virtue, warming herself in the light of Love. Dante refers us to the great vegetation myth of ancient Greece, celebrated at Eleusis, of the mother, Ceres-Demeter, and her lost child, of the spring and the summer harvest that alternates with the dead months of winter from which the earth is resurrected. She evokes the image of Persephone, incarnation of the Spring, on the plain of Enna, before her rape by Dis. She therefore symbolises innocence untarnished, the power of the earth, not yet fallen and dragged into the underworld of Dis, that Inferno we visited, that wintry land, frozen at its core. In a single complex image Dante has linked the Resurrection to its originating myth, that of Osiris, of Attis, of Adonis, to the pre-Classical and Classical rituals of the seasonal rebirth of the world, to a world before the Fall, and to Eve before she ate of the tree of knowledge. Coming so soon after the terrace where Dante’s Lust has been purged, we feel the deliberate contrast he makes between corruption and innocence, moral unworthiness and primal virtue. And he realises her innocence in himself, recognises her as one of those ‘appearances, so often witness to the heart’.
The name Matilda signified to Dante a promise of reconciliation and pardon. He would have recalled the fervent support of the Church that Matelda di Canossa, the energetic and spirited Grancontessa of Tuscany (1046-1114), granted to the reforming Gregory VII who sought an independent Papacy, and to successive Popes in her lifetime. Thanks partly to her mediation, on January 27, 1077, the Emperor Henry IV, who had been excommunicated in 1075, was received in her castle at Canossa, and pardoned by Pope Gregory, after waiting humbly for three days barefoot in the snow. Matilde would therefore have represented to Dante not only the spirit of forgiveness and the mercy that he himself anticipated from Beatrice, after his three days purgation on the Mount, but also the reconciliation of the Empire with the reformed and purged Church, each operating within its proper sphere. She left her extensive lands and castles to the Church, and it is she that the name Matelda would instantly recall to the mind of a Tuscan of 1300. I think the early commentators were right in this, and that it is a mistake to think that Dante considered Matilda as an anti-Imperialist. Dante rather sees her as establishing the balance between the two powers.
Matilda’s dancing steps are the first presentiment of the footsteps of Beatrice. She is the child Proserpine who heralds the returning presence of Demeter, the Goddess, and all those Goddess associations of the Virgin, and her predecessors through history and pre-history, all those primal Consorts of the regenerated God.
It was all a loss, says Dante. As Demeter lost her Persephone, so Man and Woman lost the primal innocence and beauty of the Garden before the Fall, lost the Spring of Human life, were cut off from its source.
MedLXII:2 The Garden Explained: Purgatorio Canto XXVIII:52
Her feet turning like a lady dancing, her eyes as Venus’s, inadvertently in love with Adonis (again a reference to the vegetation myth, and indirectly to Adonis the sun-consort of the earth, and an analogue, Adonai: Lord, to Christ), among the red and yellow flowers of chastity and love, Matilda smiles, so involving all the virtues, cardinal and theological, in eyes and smile. The flowers here are engendered without seed, again in primal innocence, and three steps apart because of the river, Dante looks across at Matilda, loathing the barrier, as Leander hated the Hellespont, the check to pride, that kept him from Hero. Dante invokes a story of ‘innocent’ love, but a highly sexually charged story, and there is a suggestion, a merest hint here, that in his look, his response to Matilda’s smile, he is prompted to think still of lust, and pride, and she responds by clarifying the reason for her smile, in this place which was chosen as a ‘nest’ for the race, her singing is of Psalm 92 v4: ‘Delectasti me, Domine in factura tua: For, thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy work.’
Matilda is there to be questioned, and Dante asks about the nature of the wood and the water. The Garden was that which was made for Mankind before the Fall and lost through Adam’s fault and Eve’s. God, who is his own delight, created Man and Woman as good, and destined for goodness, It was raised above the storms of Earth as a place of peace, a divine pledge.
Dante now gives a pseudo-scientific explanation for the breeze: it is due to the air being swept round with the celestial spheres rather than with the earth. Plants that are struck by the breeze impregnate the air and are propagated without seed, occasionally in the northern hemisphere too. The plain contains all the kinds of seed. The water flows from a continuously replenished source and not from normal rainfall. It divides to form Lethe and Eunoë. The one stream removes the memory of sin: the other revives the memory of virtue. The poetic idea of the Golden Age was perhaps a dream of the Earthly Paradise. Matilda once more ties primal innocence to that anciently worshipped rebirth of the world in springtime: at this Easter of the Vision. Virgil and Statius smile with approval at her reference to the songs of the ancient poets, and this divine wisdom. Dante looks back toward the face of Matilda, the lady of the threshold. In Monarchia Dante had asserted that the beatitude of this life, which consists of the workings of one’s own virtue, is figured in the Earthly Paradise. Matilda is here the personification of that active rational virtue. The Earthly Paradise is a place of peace, beauty, humanism, and classical wisdom.
The beatitude of the eternal life however consists of the enjoyment of the Vision of God, enabled through grace, and is the Heavenly Paradise. The first is achieved by the exercise of the moral and intellectual virtues: the second by spiritual teaching that goes beyond human reason, and by the exercise of the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity. They, as we shall see, are represented by Beatrice.