Dante – Purgatorio/Purgatory from the Divine Comedy, 19-21

Canto 19

  • Dante dreamed that a woman with a stammer, squinty eyes, maimed feet, crippled hands & sallowy skin was looking for him. He gazed at her which allowed her to speak better, it relieved her of her physical hindrances & returned the color to her face.
    • Once her tongue was freed, she began to sing & captured his complete attention. She sang: “I am the Siren who lures sailors astray due to my amazing voice. I turned Ulysses away with my music, & of all those I’ve reeled in, in very few ever got away.”
    • Her lips had just finished her song when an alert & holy lady cried out indignantly: “Virgil, who is this?” Virgil came to see her. He grabbed the Siren, tearing off her clothes & exposing her belly which released a stench so foul that Dante woke up.
  • Dante looked around for Virgil, who told him that he’d tried to wake him up 3 times. They had to go find a spot where they could continue to climb up.
    • Dante got up & noticed that it was day with the sun beating on their backs. Dante followed but was still puzzled by his dream. Then he heard a tender voice say: “Come, here’s the pass.” The one who spoke was wide-winged like a swan, guiding their steps to their destination between large stones. He told them: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
    • Dante & Virgil climbed further when Virgil asked why Dante was hanging his head so low. Dante told him about the dream that wouldn’t stop bothering him. Virgil asked him if the witch the whole mountain weeps over was in it. Didn’t he see how man escapes from her? That ought to be enough to lift one’s head up towards the eternal king in the Heavens.
      • That was enough to lift Dante’s spirit to make it soar like a bird. They passed through the rift to the next level cheerfully.
  • Once they arrived on the 5th Cornice, he saw people there stretched out on the ground weeping, lamenting, “my soul cleaves to the dust” in deep sighs.
    • Virgil asked them for the way up the mountain. One soul answered if they didn’t need to prostrate themselves for a cure, the quickest way up was to keep to the right. Dante noticed that something was hidden in his words & looked to Virgil to see how he reacted. He smiled & gave Dante the go-ahead. Dante went towards the one who’d spoken. He asked the man’s name & why the souls were sprawled out on the ground.
      • The spirit said that Heaven had turned their backs to it. He had been Pope Adrian V of the Fieschi family near Genoa. His tenure as Pope was barely a month & in that time, he really only ever focused on worldly ambition. His change of heart came abit late. He had learned that the highest you could get in life was Pope & he’d made it there. But his focus on that cut him off from God, made him greedy & that’s why he was in Purgatory.
      • In Purgatory, avarice is purged by having the souls turn their heads to the ground & away from Heaven to make them contrite. There was no pain more bitter than that. Their eyes never sought anything higher than earthly matters, so they were lying face down out of Justice. Love of all true good had been quenched by greed. Now they were bound by hands & feet, outstretched & prone as long as the Lord wanted.
      • Dante fell to his knees & started to speak but Adrian interrupted him, asking why he was groveling. Dante replied that standing would be disrespectful of Adrian’s dignity, & his conscience made him do it. Adrian told him to get up. Dante was a fellow servant to the same One power along with everyone else. If Dante had even understood the phrase “neque nubent” (neither do they marry) he’d get it. Adrian told him to get moving. He had one niece, Alagia, he was worried about being corrupted by his family’s renown.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Dante’s Dream of the Siren: This, the second of Dante’s dreams in Purgatory is the subtlest & most difficult of the three. It has often been imitated since his time, but never with his wealth of implication.
    • Virgil calls the Siren that “ancient witch” because of whose beguilements the souls do penance in Upper Purgatory. Obviously, she does not represent the “Secondary Goods” themselves, for whom love (in due measure) is right & proper. Moreover, she is at first sight unattractive; she only acquires strength & beauty from Dante’s own gaze. She is, therefore, the projection upon the outer world of something in the mind: the soul, falling in love with itself, perceives other people & things, not as they are, but as wish-fulfilments of its own: i.e. its love for them is not a love for a “true other”, but a devouring egotistical fantasy, by absorption in which the personality rots away into illusion. The Siren is, in fact, the “ancient witch” Lilith, the fabled first wife of Adam, who was not a real woman of flesh & blood, but a magical imago, begotten of Samael, the Evil One, to be a fantasm of Adam’s own desires. (According to Rabbinical legend, God, seeing that “it was not good for man to be alone” with himself in this fashion, created Eve to be his true other, & to be loved & respected by him as a real person.) In later legend, the magical fantasm of man’s own desire is the demon-lover called the succubus (or in the case of a woman, the incubus), intercourse with which saps the strength & destroys the life.
  • The Lady – who intervenes to thwart the Siren is not be identified with Beatrice, Lucy or any other of the poem’s dramatis personae. It will be noticed that she acts more promptly than Virgil (reason); but she cannot herself unmask the Siren; she calls upon Virgil to do so. She symbolizes something immediate, instinctive, & almost automatic: one might call her an intuition, or perhaps the reflex of action of a virtuous habit, whose instant warning puts the soul on the alert & prompts it to think rationally about what it is doing.
    • [Charles Williams’s novel, Descent into Hell, is a brilliant expansion & interpretation of the theme of Dante’s dream of the Siren. Those who do not care for commentary in the form of fiction may find illumination in a phrase of Fr. Gerald Vann’s: “If you exalt the objects of your love until your picture is a false one; if you idealize them; if you project upon them your own ideal self; then you are loving not a real person but a dream” (The Seven Swords)]
  • The Penance of the Covetous: Binding in fetters face downwards: Covetousness (Avaritia) is the inordinate love of wealth, & the power that wealth gives, whether it is manifested by miserly hoarding or by lavish spending. It is a peculiarly earth-bound sin, looking to nothing beyond the rewards of this life (compare to Bunyan’s man with the muck-rake”); it is expiated here by the endurance of its effects; the souls are so fettered that they can see nothing but the earth on which they once set store.
  • Pope Adrian V is the image of Covetousness in the form of Ambition – the concentration upon worldly place & power – an ambition no less earth-bound for being centered upon ecclesiastical preferment.

Canto 20

  • A will that fights an even better will won’t fare well. So to please Adrian, Dante left with Virgil before he’d gotten all he wanted from Adrian. They had to squeeze by all the people laid out on the path.
    • Dante cursed the ancient wolf, Greed, (Mentioned in Hell, 1) that had more victims than all the birds of prey had ever had, & had no bottom its endless craving. He asked the Heavens when the one to take it away would come.
    • As they walked on, Dante could focus on those weeping. One cried out “Sweet Mary!” like a woman in labor. “We all know how poor she was by the dingy hostel she stayed in to bring the precious & blissful burden into the world.”
      • Then the voice said, “Fabricius, you preferred to live your life in virtue & poverty than in wealth & vice.” These words pleased Dante so much that he rushed to speak to the soul, who then spoke of the money that Nicolas had paid so that 3 poor girls would be able to marry respectably.
      • Dante asked him why he was the only one praising good people & good deeds. No one else was joining him. If Dante got back to Earth, he’d write nice things about him, if he told him his story.
        • The soul said he’d tell him he would tell him, not out of some reward or comfort, but to salute one who had a great deal of grace in him. He’d been the root of the tree of the most warlike, dominating & treacherous dynasty in Europe – the Capets. They’d been responsible for a lot of conquests throughout the continent. All of his progeny were either named Louis or Philip.
        • He was rumored to be the biological son of a Parisian butcher. When the line of the ancient kings had died out, he found himself King of France, Hugh Capet. Suddenly, he had many friends, possessions & lots of power. The marriages of the family brought the Capetian kings more power & influence, even abroad. They grabbed Normandy, Ponthieu & Gascony. Louis VIII’s son, Charles of Anjou went into Italy on a “peace mission” & killed Conradin at Tagliacozzo. There was also a rumor that Charles had had Thomas Aquinas poisoned to “make amends”.
        • Hugh anticipated another Charles (of Valois) would be even more destructive, dangerous & treacherous, especially to any Italian city unlucky enough to have any dealings with him. Charles II of Anjou had been taken captive but now he was haggling over the sale of his daughter, just like you would do with a ship.
        • He also bemoaned what greed does to us all that we don’t even care about family. Hugh foresaw the Fleur-de-Lys marching throughout all of Italy to fight Boniface VIII, trying capture him & his lands. Philip IV had all the makings of a Judas & a Pilate in one man, betraying the Church & plundering the treasure of the Knights Templar. He wondered aloud how God would punish him.
      • Hugh told him the souls of that level filled their days with prayers while the nights were different. The souls rehearsed the stories of:
        • Dido’s brother, Pygmalion, whose lust for gold made him a traitor, thief & murderer.
        • Midas’s misery from his greedy wish.
        • Achan who’d kept some of Jericho’s treasure for himself.
        • Sapphira & Ananias who’d sold their possessions to give to the Church but kept some of the money for themselves.
        • Heliodorus who had robbed Jerusalem’s Temple treasury only to be trampled by a horse.
        • Polymnest who had killed Priam’s son, Polydorus, to take Troy’s gold.
        • Crassus who’d changed sides in a Civil War for money & power. He had molten gold poured down his throat.
      • Hugh explained that all the souls spoke – some loudly, some softly – & it depended on how the impulse moved them. He wasn’t the only one who did it, he was just the only one doing it at the time.
  • Dante & Virgil left him & worked their way up until they felt the mountain shake. Dante thought this was all for him. It was a quake stronger than when Latona gave birth to Apollo & Diana at Delos.
    • A shout went up every side of the mountain. Virgil reassured him of his safety. There were voices singing: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest). When they stopped, the quake stopped. Virgil & Dante moved on past all the souls scattered in the road. Dante was filled with the desire to know but was afraid to ask, so he just continued following Virgil.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Hugh Capet: after the lust of spiritual power, the lust of temporal power: Pope & Emperor are alike victims of the “ancient wolf”. Worldly ambition is accompanied by a more literal covetousness for wealthy & possessions, with the inevitable manifestations of cruelty, callousness, & meanness, as exemplified in the history of the House of Capet.


Canto 21

  • This natural thirst for something which nothing quenches, except what the Samarian woman asked for (in John 4 – ‘Living Water’), stressed Dante out as he followed Virgil around all the people. He grieved for all the people’s punishments.
    • They saw a soul come up to them from behind. He said “May God give you peace, brothers.” Virgil answered “May the one true court which doomed me to eternal exile bring you peace wherever the blessed consort”. The soul asked if Dante & Virgil were souls shut out from God’s grace, who brought them this far up the mountain.
    • Virgil answered that Dante’s face bore the marks of sin put there by an angel – a clear sign he deserved to be there. But since his fate wasn’t etched in stone, he was allowed to come here. But he couldn’t come alone & see he was there to guide him with as much knowledge as he’d had.
    • Virgil then asked the man why the mountain quaked & rang when the souls cried out with joy. Dante was relieved that that was asked because he was dying to know the answer. The soul responded that the mountain’s rule didn’t do anything without reason or beyond custom. The slopes weren’t exposed to natural changes, as Heaven is the only cause of anything there. That’s why there was no weather like there’d be anywhere on earth. But above the 3 initial steps, there was no weather or natural phenomena. When a soul is purged & clean, or moves on to a higher station, the whole mountain shakes & people rejoice. The soul said when he’d been suck in one level 500+ years, the quakes inspired him to redouble his efforts to get into Heaven. The souls were joyful the others’ progress.
    • Dante was happy to hear the soul’s answer but Virgil prodded him further for his own person story & why he was there.
      • The soul answered he lived during the reign of Titus, who despite the capture of Jerusalem & the destruction of the 2nd Temple, was a decent ruler. He was a famous poet, named Statius. He wrote about Thebes & Achilles. He owed his whole career to the Aeneid & was a huge fan of Virgil’s. Virgil turned to Dante with a look that said, “Be quiet.” But Dante couldn’t keep a straight face & smiled from ear to ear. Statius looked him in the eyes, in the soul.
        • Statius asked Dante why he had been smiling. Dante felt compelled to answer but also felt compelled to keep quiet. Virgil allowed him to speak. Dante told Statius he was in for a real threat. The man guiding him through Hell & Purgatory was THE Virgil. He was just excited for him to meet his hero. Statius stooped to Virgil, about to kiss his feet. Virgil told him to stop it. Statius felt embarrassed about the fact they were both dead & he was still instinctively acting as if they were alive.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Statius: Publius Papinius Statius (c. AD 45-96) was the author of the Thebaid (an epic on the history of Eteocles & Polynices, Hell 26) & part of an Achilleid, together with a volume (the Silvae) of occasional poems, the libretto of a pantomime, the Agave (now lost, but mentioned by Juvenal), & a poem on the German wars of Domitian (also lost).
    • Dante’s evident admiration for this poet of the “Silver Age” was a standing puzzle to the older & severer school of classical criticism, but modern scholarship tends to take a more favorable view, & his poems were highly popular both in the Middle Ages & in his own day. C.S. Lewis (Apology of Love) finds in his work the first beginnings of allegory as a literary form, & this may help to account for Dante’s interest in him.
    • The significance of Statius in the imagery of the Comedy has been much disputed; but it seems likely that Dante wished to show the soul as being accompanied & helped on its journey, not only by Old Rome (natural Humanism) but also by the New (Christian) Rome (redeemed Humanism). The story of Statius’s conversion, if it does not derive from ecclesiastical legend, may have been invented by Dante for this purpose.


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