The middle section of Purgatorio takes place in what is considered purgatory proper, where the purgation of sins actually occurs. There are seven terraces around the purgatory mountain, each terrace a place for therapy for each of the seven deadly sins. I say “therapy” because one should remember that they are not punishments but reforms to make one appropriate for entering heaven. Those that have entered Purgatory are saved; they will enter heaven. Their souls just require adjustments.
Before Dante the character leaves Ante Purgatory, night falls and he sleeps and dreams of being lifted up (Canto 9). When he awakes he finds himself and Virgil at the entrance of purgatory proper. He has been lifted up by eagles. This is not without significance. It dramatizes that we individuals require God’s grace to be saved; we cannot do it by ourselves. At the gate an angel welcomes them in. The gate is in the shape of an eye of a needle, which of course recalls Matthew 19:24, getting into heaven is more difficult than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
Cantos 10 through 27 constitute the purgatorial journey up, as Thomas Merton calls it, the seven story mountain. Canto 17, through Virgil, provides the philosophic understanding of sin, its relationship to love, and how the seven terraces are arranged.
Not the creator nor a single creature,
as you know, ever existed without love,
the soul’s love or the love that comes by nature.
The natural love is just and cannot rove.
The soul’s love strays if it desires what’s wrong
or loves with too much strength or not enough.
When toward its prime good it is led aright
and keeps good measure in the second goods,
it cannot be the cause of bad delight
But when it twists to evil, or does not
race for a good with the appropriate care,
the Potter finds rebellion in the pot.
Hence you can understand how love must be
the seedbed where all virtuous deeds must grow,
with every act that warrants punishment.
-Canto 17, ll 91-105 (Esolen Translation)
“Hence you can understand how love must be/the seedbed…” is the critical line. Love not only moves the world (God’s love) but love is what shapes human nature, and in this case the incorrect use of love causes us to sin. Esolen, explicating Virgil, who of course is presenting Dante the poet’s argument, states in his notes: “Evil enters the world only when we choose either to love what we should not love, or to love what we should love, but with either insufficient or excessive love or otherwise disordered ardor” (p. 453). The first three terraces harbor the sinners of improper love (pride, envy, anger), the fourth the sinners of insufficient love (sloth), and the final three the sinners of excessive and disordered love (avarice, gluttony, lust). At each terrace there is a therapeutic practice meant to untrain the sin that fixed our nature. I think of it as a vine who by ties to a trellis is trained to grow a particular way. Sin has trained the soul in a particular way, and the purgatorial exercise retrains the soul to be in God’s righteousness. Unlike in Inferno, where souls are forever in a single realm, souls in Purgatorio, traverse all seven terraces. All souls suffer from all seven root causes, and so undergo all seven exercises, but the time duration for each varies on how deep that sin is ingrained.
At the gate of the seven terraces, an angel inscribes the letter “p” seven times on Dante the pilgrim’s forehead, the “p” standing for either for peccata (Italian) or peccatum (Latin) which both translates to sin—seven for the seven root sins. After Dante the pilgrim traverses each terrace, an angel wipes away one of the p’s, so that by the end of the climb they are all wiped away, and so Dante the pilgrim, though not a soul, has performed some sort of penance.
There is a pattern, then, to the passage through the seven terraces. At the beginning of each terrace there is an angel that welcomes the pilgrims; there is at least one example of the virtue that is to be learned by the penitent souls; Dante observes the corrective exercise at the terrace; he meets a person or group undergoing the exercise; a penitent or more converses with Dante in a sort of confessional moment; the pilgrims move on where as they leave the terrace a “p” is cleared off of Dante’s forehead. An example of the corresponding virtues to the root sins (humility, kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperance, chastity) always include an example from the life of Blessed Virgin Mary. Unlike the souls in hell, where they are hiding or being deceptive with information, the souls in purgatory honestly confess. Also, within each terrace, there is some hymn being sung that that reflects the corrective virtue.
So for example, in the first terrace of pride, there are three statues that demonstrate the virtue of humility: that of the Virgin’s Annunciation, that of King David holding the ark of the covenant, and that of the Emperor Trajan conceding to the appeal of a poor widow. The Our Father prayer is chanted, and the penitents must bear a huge stone on their necks so that they walk stooped over. Dante meets three penitents—Omberto degli Aldobrandeschi, Oderisi da Gubbio, and Provenzano Salvani—the first a prideful aristocrat, the other two prideful artists. The hymn that is sung is the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and placed in the ground are carvings of examples of pride punished.
I’m fascinated by a particular canto in this middle section that I want to go through in close analysis. I can’t say I will be able to answer all the questions I raise, but it’s a particularly rich moment. It’s canto xxvi, the last of the seven terraces, the terrace of the lustful. Here the penitent souls are in a purgative fire, and the pilgrims, Dante, Virgil, and now Statius, standing as far from the wall of fire as they can, but there is not very much room. Inside the wall of fire they can see a host of souls walking by, and there is another host of souls walking in the other direction inside the wall. One particular soul inside the fire starts a conversation with Dante over Dante being a living person. After an exchange, Dante asks that soul who are all the souls about him. The soul responds.
“…Now you know our deeds and what our sin was:
if you wish to know who we are by name,
there is not time to tell, and I could not.
I will rid you of your ignorance of me” I am
Guido Guinizelli, and now I purge myself here
because I repented well, before the last.”
-ll 88-93, Durling Translation
GuidoGuinizelli was a poet from Florence in the generation before Dante’s. Dante did not know him personally but had read his work extensively and admired and emulated much of his poetry. Here is Dante’s reaction when he hears it’s Guinizelli.
Such as in Lycurgus’ grief the two sons became,
seeing their mother again: so did I become—
though I do not rise so high—
when I hear our father name himself, the father
of me and of the others, my betters, who ever used
sweet and graceful rhymes of love,
and without hearing or speaking I walked full of
thought, gazing at him a long time, but because of
the fire I approached no closer.
When I had fed myself with gazing, I offered
myself all eager to serve him, with the kind of
affirmation that gains belief.
-ll 94-105, Durling Translation
The simile of the two sons comes from the Latin poem the Thebaid, written by the very person walking by Dante, Statius. The sons are grateful for seeing their captive mother alive. So what Dante is saying is that as the sons are emotional over seeing their mother, he is as emotional in seeing “the father/of me and of others, my betters, who ever used/sweet and graceful rhymes of love.” Guinizelli is Dante’s poetic father, and he wishes to embrace him with affection but the fire prevents him. But instead he offers him words of endearment. Guinizelli replies.
And he to me: “You are leaving such a trace in
me because of what I hear, and so clear a one, that
Lethe cannot take it away or make it fade.
But if your words swore truly just now, tell me
the reason why you show by your speech and your
gaze that you hold me dear.”
And I to him: “Your sweet poems, which, as
long as modern usage lasts, will make precious
their very ink.”
-ll 106-114, Durling Translation
When Guinizelli asks why Dante holds him so dear, Dante replies because his “sweet poems” make the “very ink precious.” The background information is that Guinizelli had developed the new poetic style, dolce stil novo, or in English, the new sweet style, that Dante and his best friend Guido Cavalcanti took up in the subsequent generation. The dolce stil novo was a philosophic love poetry and it was in the vernacular Italian. To be specific it was in the Florentine Italian, and so you can see how Guinizelli is Dante’s “father” in several ways. One understands then how Dante wants to embrace Guinizelli, and except for the fire he would have done so.
So what’s important about this. First, it is interesting that Dante identifies what amounts to a second poetic father. Virgil is the first, the poetic father in Latin, and Guinizelli the second in the vernacular. And yet Dante strangely never encounters his flesh and blood father anywhere in the Commedia. He encounters his poetic fathers and his great-great grandfather, Cacciaguida, who died in one of the crusades, in Paradiso.
But more importantly Dante the poet constructs a number of parallel poetic “father-son” relationships throughout the Purgatorio. In canto ii, we meet the song writer who set Dante’s poetry to music; we can think of Dante as Casella’s poetic father. In canto vi we meet Sordello da Goita, a Mantuan poet who identifies Virgil as his poetic father. In canto xxi we meet Statius, who also identifies Virgil as his poetic father. Now we have Dante’s poetic father in Guinizelli.
Guinizelli, as a good penitent, continues by deflecting the compliment with humility.
“O my brother,” he said, “he I point out to you
with my finger,” and he indicated a spirit further
on, “was a better fashioner of his mother tongue.
All verses of love and romances in prose he
surpassed, no matter what the fools say who think
that the one from near Limoges is better.
They turned their faces more to reputation than to
the truth, and thus they fix their opinion before
listening to art or reason.
Thus of old many with Guittone, still
praising him in cry after cry, until the truth
overcame him in the judgements of more people.
Now if you have such ample privilege that you
are permitted to go to the cloister where Christ is
abbot of the college,
say a Paternoster to him for me, as much of one
as we in this world need, where the power to sin is
no longer ours.”
-ll 114-132, Durling Translation
There is so much going on there too. Guittone was a writer who appealed to the masses, who in turn praised him, but whose work lacked the “the truth” of art. Guinizelli points to a fellow penitent as being the “better fashioner of his mother tongue.” That’s a famous line, sometimes translated as “the better craftsman,” and in Italian, “il miglior fabbro del parlar materno.” But why are they all in purgatory? Because their poetry was on love and romance. Recall in Inferno, canto v, where Francesca and Paulo are condemned in the pit of the lustful. It was through reading romance poetry that led to their committing adultery, and ultimately confinement to hell. Dante faints at the end of that canto because he realizes what he has written leads others to sin. So that is, love and romance poetry trains the human soul away from God and toward lust. Here Guinizelli has repented and is undergoing purgation for his poetry, as is the man who he points out as the better craftsman, Arnaut Daniel. Then Guinizelli fades back into the fire as a “fish into water” and Arnaut steps forward to speak with Dante.
Then, perhaps to make room for another who
was near him, he disappeared into the fire like a
fish into the water when it goes to the bottom.
I went forward a little to the one he had pointed
out, and said that my desire was preparing a
gracious place for his name.
He began freely to say: “So pleasing to me is your
courteous request, that I cannot nor will not hide myself
I am Arnaut, who weep and go singing; with chagrin I
view my past folly, and rejoicing I see ahead the joy I hope for.
Now I beg you, by the Power that guides you to the
summit of the stairway, remember my suffering at the
Then he hid himself in the fire that refines them.
-ll 132-148, Durling Translation
Arnaut was a 12th century troubadour poet from Provencal who wrote in his Provencal vernacular. He is not only called the “better craftsman” here, but Ezra Pound in the 20th century called him the greatest poet to have ever lived. And so, another father-son poetic relationship is established. As Dante the pilgrim turns to Guinizelli as his poetic father, Guinizelli turns to Arnaut as his poetic father. Arnaut wrote a particularly erotic love poetry, but here he states with repentance that he views his past as folly. As with Guinizelli just before, he asks Dante to pray for him.
Arnaut’s speech in the Divine Comedy quoted above is in italics because Dante the poet does something there that is absolutely remarkable. Every character that Dante the pilgrim meets throughout the entire Divine Comedy speaks in Italian, no matter what their original language was in life. The only language we come across in the Commedia that is not Italian is an occasional Latin. That is, except for here. Arnaut is given the pride of place to speak in a third language, his native Provencal, a language that by the way Dante knew and had also used. In this little touch, Dante has emphasized his decision to write his epic in his vernacular. The vernacular becomes a poetic statement.
I’ll concluding this post with Arnaut’s actual Provencal.
“Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire.
Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor.”
If you wish to sample a piece from Arnaut's music, listen to this rendition.
The sultry lyrics with translation can be found here.