I wrote on my Purgatorio read last year, but I always meant to complete Purgatorio with a fourth part. Now that we are in the midst of Dante’s approximate 750th birthday, I want to complete my posts on Purgatorio with the culmination of the second Cantica and a detailed look at one of the greatest moments in all of literature, the moment that Dante the character finally meets Beatrice.
First, here are links from last year to my first three posts on Purgatorio:
Second, let me quickly explain why I said “the approximate” birthdate. We know the year that Dante Alighieri was born but we don’t have a date. We only know under what zodiac sign he was born under, which narrows his birthdate to a month’s span. From Famous People bio site:
Dante was born on May/June c.1265 in Florence. The actual birth date of Dante is still unknown. His year of birth is analyzed from the autobiographic allusions in La Divina Commedia. Also as the sun was in Gemini so he must be born around the period of 11th May to 11th June.
So in commemoration, I will post a conclusion to my Purgatorio read and before June 11th I will have a smashing 750th birthday post for the greatest poet of all time.
Third, let me conclude a summary from where I left off. At the end of the seventh terrace, where I had left off in Part 3 of my Purgatorio posts, the pilgrims (Dante, Virgil, and Statius) reach a wall of fire (Canto 27), a refining purgation that allows souls into heaven. This might be the only element of the Purgatorio which is actually biblically supported (see 1 Cor 15). Frozen with fear to pass through the flames, Dante is finally lured by Virgil with the thought that this is the only way to reach Beatrice. Passing through the wall of flame, the pilgrims reach Earthly Paradise—a lush place of pastures, woods, streams, and a gentle breeze—the actual location of Eden (Canto 28), where they meet a new guide, a young lady named Matelda. The lady shows the travelers about when a great procession comes out of the woods (Canto 29), a procession of Biblical figures, climaxed by a chariot drawn by a gryphon, a creature that is half eagle and half lion. The procession is actually a grand entrance for Beatrice, upon which Virgil disappears and Dante and Beatrice have that great reunion (Cantos 30 & 31). More on this below. Finally with Dante repented and purged of all sin and in essence baptized anew, the journey with Beatrice as his new guide to the heavens begin (Cantos 32 &33). And so Purgatorio ends with, “I retuned from the most holy wave refreshed, as/new plants are renewed with new leaves,/pure and made ready to rise to the stars” (XXXIII, 142-145).
Last, let me go through what I think is one of the most amazing scenes in all of literature, the rendezvous between Dante and Beatrice. From the Durling translation, Canto 30:
I have sometimes seen, at the beginning of the
day, the eastern sky all rosy, and the rest adorned
with cloudless blue,
and the face of the sun rising shadowed, so that
by the tempering of vapors the eye endured it for a
so, within a cloud of flowers that from the
hands of the angels was rising and falling back
within and without,
her white veil girt with olive, a lady appeared to
me, clothed, beneath a green mantle, in the color
of living flame. (ll 22-33)
Here’s the scene. A great procession of Biblical characters has just paraded from the woods (Canto 29) in front of Dante, who is separated by a stream, and suddenly from the sky through the clouds, Beatrice drifts down, angels about her tossing flowers as if it were confetti. Now that is Hollywood-esk grand entrance. She is dressed in three colors, representing faith (white), hope (green), and love (red). It continues with Dante relating what he’s feeling.
And my spirit, which already for so long a time
had not known in her presence the awe that
overcame it with trembling,
without having more knowledge through the
eyes, because of hidden power that moved from
her, felt the great force of ancient love. (ll 34-39)
By his “spirit” he means the emotions inside of him are recalling “the awe” of her being, which comes from her “hidden power” that one feels through her eyes. He cannot see her face—she is veiled—but he is sure it is her because of “the force of the ancient love,” ancient being when they last separated ten years before. Ancient is a strange word (Italian, d’antico) when it is only ten years before, but it will get repeated further down.
As soon as my sight was struck by that high
power that had transfixed me before I was out of
I turned to the left with the appeal with which a
little boy runs to his mama when he is afraid or
when he is hurt,
to say to Virgil: “Less than a dram of blood is left
me that is not trembling: I recognize the signs of
the ancient flame!” (ll 35-48)
The shock and awe from Beatrice coming down regresses his adult control back to boyhood, and he turns to his guide, Virgil, like “a little boy” who “runs to his mama when he is afraid or when he is hurt.” This will not be the last time his manhood regresses in the scene. In his excitement he screams out, “I recognize the signs of the ancient flame!” There’s that word “ancient” again. That line he screams out is a loaded line; it’s the very line that Dido says in Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, when she falls in love with Aeneas, feeling the emotions she once felt for her departed husband. Here’s the significance. Dido feels a love that should not have taken place; for Dante, he feels a love that was abandoned and betrayed. But even more importantly, Virgil the character is about to disappear, and Dante the poet uses one of Virgil’s most famous lines as a tributary send off. So Dante the character turns only to find Virgil gone.
But Virgil had left us deprived of himself—
Virgil, most sweet father, Virgil, to whom I gave
myself for my salvation—,
nor did anything our ancient mother lost
suffice to prevent my cheeks, though cleansed with
dew, from turning dark again with tears. (ll 48-54)
And Dante, seeing that his second father, the poet he most admires, the guide who has brught him safely through hell and purgatory, has vanished, he breaks down into tears. But then the most startling thing of all happens. Beatrice speaks.
“Dante, though Virgil depart, do not weep yet,
do not weep yet, for you must weep for another
sword.” (ll 55-57)
First, this is the only time in all of The Divine Comedy, the entire epic of a 100 Cantos averaging about 160 lines each, that Dante’s name is actually uttered, and it’s spoken by Beatrice at the moment of their reunion. Of course that is no coincidence. But look at what she says. Just when Dante is expecting some sort of consolation, Beatrice tells him, repeating twice, “do not weep yet” (and the repetition suggesting it’s said sternly) because if you think Virgil’s disappearance is a pang, you’re going to be weeping from another stab.
Like an admiral who comes to stern and prow to
see the people who serve on the other ships, and
heartens them to do so well:
on the left side of the chariot, when I turned at
the sound of my name, which of necessity is here
I saw the lady who had just appeared to me
veiled beneath the angelic welcome, directing her
eyes toward me across the stream,
although the veil that came down from her
head, circled with Minerva’s foliage, did not permit
her to appear openly.
Still regal and haughty in bearing, she continued
like one who speaks but holds in reserve the hotter
“Look at us well! Truly I am, truly I am
Beatrice. How have you deigned to approach the
mountain? Did you not know that here mankind is
happy?” (ll 58-75)
Notice she projects power and control: She stands “like an admiral” who faces his crew. Dante highlights that his name was uttered, if readers didn’t catch its significance. “Regal and haughty” she speaks with a sternness that is holding back anger. In essence, what she says is how do you dare approach this holy mountain. What gives you the right? She is poking at his sinfulness. And he falls in shame. We don’t exactly know what the sin was, but Dante had turned away from her and been diverted. He failed to be faithful, though most scholars don’t believe it was a failing due to lust, but a spiritual failing.
My eyes fell down to the clear spring, but,
seeing myself there, I turned them to the grass,
such shame weighed down my brow:
so a mother seems severe to her son as she
seemed to me, for bitter is the flavor of
compassion still unripe. (ll 76-81)
Again his manhood regresses, and he feels the guilt of a boy who is being berated by his mother.
She fell silent, and the angels sang suddenly: “In
te, Domine, speravi,” but beyond “pedes meos” they
did not pass. (ll 82-84)
She goes silent, a stern silence, but the angels around her sing from Psalm 30 (“In
te, Domine, speravi”), which is an appeal to be delivered in justice. In his guilt, “the ice that had tightened around [his] heart/became spirit and water” (97-98), melting and alluding to the ice that Satan in Inferno was frozen in. What a powerful scene.