National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory

As morning dawned and the poets slowly climbed out of the infernal region and stepped upon the isle from which the Mount of Purgatory rises, they were accosted by an old man with long white hair and beard, Cato of Utica, who demanded the reason of their coming, and only permitted them to remain when he heard that a lady from Heaven had given the command. Then he ordered Vergil to lave the smoke of Hell from Dante’s face in the waves of the sea, and to gird him with the reed of humility. As the sun rose a radiant angel, guiding a boat laden with souls, appeared, and the poets fell on their knees until he departed.

As the newly-landed spirits questioned Vergil of the way up the mountain, Dante recognized among them his beloved friend Casella, the musician, and tried in vain to embrace his spirit body. At Dante’s request, Casella began to sing, and the enchanted spirits were scattered only by the chiding voice of Cato.

Vergil surveyed the insurmountable height before them, and hastened with Dante to inquire the way of a troop of souls coming towards them. As they talked, Dante recognized one, blond and smiling, with a gash over one eyebrow and another over his heart. It was Manfredi, King of Apulia and Sicily, who was slain at Benevento by Charles of Anjou, and, being under excommunication, was not allowed Christian burial. He asked Dante to make him happy by telling his daughter that by faith he was saved from eternal destruction, but because of his sins he must spend thirty times the time that his presumption had endured at the foot of the mount, unless his time was shortened by the righteous prayers of his friends on earth.

It was with the greatest difficulty that the poets clambered up the steep and narrow path to the next terrace, and only the assurance that the ascent would grow easier as he neared the summit sustained Dante. As Vergil explained to him while resting on the next terrace that the sun appeared on his left because Purgatory and Jerusalem were in different hemispheres, some one spoke, and turning they saw a group of persons in an attitude of indolence, among them a Florentine acquaintance, Belacqua, a maker of musical instruments, who sat waiting the length of another lifetime for admission above because he had postponed conversion from time to time, through negligence.

Proceeding, the poets met a concourse of souls who had suffered violent death, chanting the Miserere, who perceiving Dante to be living, sent messages to their friends on earth. Among these were Giacopo del Cassero and Buonconte di Montefeltro, son of Dante’s friend, Guido di Montefeltro, who fell in the battle of Campaldino, in which Dante had taken part. Wounded in the neck, he fell, and had just time to breathe a prayer to Mary, thus saving his soul from the Evil One, who was so incensed that, raising a great storm, he caused the rivers to overflow and sweep away the lifeless body, tearing from it the cross he had made with his arms in his last agony, and burying it in the mire of the Arno. The third shade bade him think of her when, returned home, he sang of his journey. She was Pia, born at Sienna, who died at Maremma, by the hand of her husband.

Dante at last managed to escape from these shades, who implored him to ask for prayers for them on earth, and moved on with Vergil until they met the haughty shade of Sordello, who clasped Vergil in his arms when he learned he was a Mantuan. Touched by this expression of love for his native land, Dante launched into an apostrophe to degenerate Italy, to that German Albert who refused to save the country groaning under oppression, and to lost Florence, torn by internecine wars.

When Sordello learned that the Mantuan shade was Vergil, he humbled himself before him, and paid him reverence, asking eagerly in what part of the underworld he dwelt. The sun was sinking, and as the poets could not ascend by night, he urged them to pass the night with him. Leading them to a vale carpeted with emerald grass and brilliant with flowers, he pointed out the shades singing “Salve Regina” as the Emperor Rudolph,–he who made an effort to heal sick Italy,–Philip III. of France, Charles I. of Naples, and Henry III. of England. As the hour of twilight approached, that hour in which the sailor thinks of home, and the pilgrim thrills at the sound of vesper bells, Dante beheld a shade arise, and lifting its palms begin to sing the vesper hymn. Soon two radiant angels clad in delicate green descended from Heaven, holding flaming swords. These, Sordello explained, were to keep off the serpent that threatened this fair vale at night.

As the hour of night approached in which the swallow laments its woes, Dante fell asleep on the grass and dreamed that he was Ganymede snatched from Mt. Ida by Jove’s eagle. Awaking, he found himself alone with Vergil in a strange place, with the sun two hours high. Lucia, symbolical of the enlightening grace of Heaven, had conveyed him to the spot and pointed out to Vergil the gate of Purgatory. Cheered and confident, he rose, and they went together to the portal and mounted the three steps, the first of shining white marble, the second of purple stone, cracked and burnt, and the third of flaming red porphyry. There, on the diamond threshold, sat an angel with a naked sword, clad in a robe of ashen gray, whose face was too bright to look upon. When Dante fell on his knees and implored entrance, the angel imprinted on his forehead seven “P"’s for the seven sins (Peccata), and opening the gate with the gold and silver keys, ushered them into the mighty portals. “From Peter I have these keys. Me he instructed to err rather in opening than in keeping shut. But see that ye look not behind, or ye will at once return.”

With much difficulty the two poets ascended the steep and winding path, and paused to view the wonderful sculptures on the embankment, that would put Nature herself to shame, so natural were they. Many examples of Humility were there portrayed,–the Virgin Mary, the Holy Ark, drawn by oxen, the Psalmist dancing before the Lord, while Michal looked forth in scorn from her palace window, and Trajan, yielding to the widow’s prayer. As they stood there, the souls came in sight. “Reader, attend not to the fashion of the torment, but think of what follows.” The unhappy ones crept around the terrace, bowed under a heavy burden of stones, and the most patient, as he bent under his burden, exclaimed, with tears, “I can do no more!” As they walked they repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and kept their eyes fixed on the life-like sculptures on the floor of those who had suffered before them for the sins of pride: Lucifer, falling from Heaven; Briareus and Nimrod overcome by the bolts of Jove; Niobe, weeping among her dead children; Cyrus’s head taunted by Tomyris; Troy humbled in ashes.

As Vergil approached the penitents to inquire the way to the next terrace, he and Dante were invited to join the procession and talk with one who could not lift his face enough to see them. This was Omberto, who had been slain by the Siennese for his unbearable pride. Dante also talked with his friend Oderigi, an illuminator of manuscript, who now humbly acknowledged that he was far surpassed by Franco Bolognese. “What is mundane glory?” he exclaimed, as he pointed out Provenzano Salvani, with whose fame Tuscany once rang, but who barely escaped Hell by his voluntary humiliation for a friend. “Lift up thy face!” commanded Vergil, as Dante walked with his head bowed, absorbed in the floor-sculptures; and as he looked, the white-robed angel whose face was like “a tremulous flame” approached, and struck Dante’s forehead with his wings. Dante marvelled at the ease with which he mounted, until his master explained that the heaviest sin, the sin that underlies all others, had fallen from him when the angel struck the “P” from his forehead, and that the ascent would grow still lighter from terrace to terrace. “Blessed are the poor in spirit!” sung by sweet voices, greeted the mounting poets.

The second terrace was of livid stone unrelieved by any sculpture. The air was full of voices inculcating charity and self-denial, and others lamenting the sin of envy. Here envy was punished, and here the sharpest pain pierced Dante’s heart as he saw the penitents sit shoulder to shoulder against the cliff, robed in sackcloth of the same livid color, their eyelids, through which bitter tears trickled, sewed together with wire. Sapia of Sienna first greeted Dante and entreated him to pray for her. When she had told how, after having been banished from her city, she had prayed that her townsman might be defeated by the Florentines, Dante passed on and spoke with Guido of Duca, who launched into an invective against Florence to his companion Rinieri. “The whole valley of the Arno is so vile that its very name should die. Wonder not at my tears, Tuscan, when I recall the great names of the past, and compare them with the curs who have fallen heir to them. Those counts are happiest who have left no families.” Guido himself was punished on this terrace because of his envy of every joyous man, and the spirit with whom he talked was Rinieri, whose line had once been highly honored. “Go, Tuscan,” exclaimed Guido, “better now I love my grief than speech.” As the poets passed on, the air was filled with the lamentations of sinful but now repentant spirits.

Dazzled by the Angel’s splendor, the poets passed up the stairs to the third terrace, Dante in the mean time asking an explanation of Guido’s words on joint resolve and trust.

“The less one thinks of another’s possessions,” replied his guide, “and the more he speaks of ’our’ instead of ’my,’ the more of the Infinite Good flows towards him. If you thirst for further instruction, await the coming of Beatrice.”

As they attained the next height, Dante, rapt in vision, saw the sweet Mother questioning her Son in the Temple, saw Pisistratus, his queen, and the martyred Stephen blessing his enemies in death. As he awoke, they passed on, to become involved in a thick cloud of smoke, through which it was impossible to distinguish any object, and whose purpose was to purge away anger, the sin-cloud that veils the mortal eye.

As they passed from the thick smoke into the sunset, Dante fell into a trance, and saw Itys, Haman, and other notable examples of unbridled angers, and as the visions faded away, was blinded by the splendor of the angel guide who directed them to the fourth terrace. As they waited for the dawn, Vergil answered Dante’s eager questions. “Love,” he said, “is the seed of every virtue, and also of every act for which God punished man. Natural love is without error; but if it is bent on evil aims, if it lacks sufficiency, or if it overleaps its bounds and refuses to be governed by wise laws, it causes those sins that are punished on this mount. The defective love which manifests itself as slothfulness is punished on this terrace.”

A troop of spirits rushed past them as morning broke, making up by their haste for the sloth that had marked their lives on earth. As they hurried on they urged themselves to diligence by cries of “In haste the mountains blessed Mary won!” “Caesar flew to Spain!” “Haste! Grace grows best in those who ardor feel!” As the poet meditated on their words, he lapsed into a dream in which he saw the Siren who drew brave mariners from their courses; and even as he listened to her melodious song, he beheld her exposed by a saint-like lady, Lucia, or Illuminating Grace. Day dawned, the Angel fanned the fourth “P” from his forehead, and the poet ascended to the fifth terrace, where lay the shades of the avaricious, prostrate on the earth, weeping over their sins. They who in life had resolutely turned their gaze from Heaven and fixed it on the things of the earth, must now grovel in the dust, denouncing avarice, and extolling the poor and liberal until the years have worn away their sin.

Bending over Pope Adrian the Fifth, Dante heard his confession that he was converted while he held the Roman shepherd’s staff. Then he learned how false a dream was life, but too late, alas! to escape this punishment. As Dante spoke with the shade of Capet the elder, a mighty trembling shook the mountain, which chilled his heart until he learned from the shade of Statius, whom they next met, that it was caused by the moving upward of a purified soul, his own, that had been undergoing purgation on this terrace five hundred years and more. “Statius was I,” said the shade, “and my inspiration came from that bright fountain of heavenly fire, the Aeneid; it was my mother; to it I owe my fame. Gladly would I have added a year to my banishment here, could I have known the Mantuan.” Vergil’s glance said “Be mute!” but Dante’s smile betrayed the secret, and Statius fell at Vergil’s feet adoring. Statius had suffered for the sin of prodigality, which was punished, together with avarice, on this terrace.

The three proceeded upward to the sixth terrace, the ascent growing easier on the disappearance of the “P” of avarice from Dante’s forehead. Vergil and Statius moved on in loving conversation, Dante reverently following. “Your Pollio led me to Christianity,” said Statius, “but my cowardice caused me long to conceal it. Prodigality brought me hither.”

On the sixth terrace two trees stood in opposite parts of the pathway that the gluttons were compelled to tread, the first with branches broad at the top and tapering downward, so that it was impossible to mount it; upon it fell a fount of limpid water. From its branches a voice cried, “Of this food ye shall have a scarcity. In the primal age, acorns furnished sweet food and each rivulet seemed nectar.” Towards the next tree, grown from a twig of the tree of knowledge, the gluttons stretched eager hands, but a voice cried, “Pass on; approach not!” Such desire for food was excited by these tempting fruits, that the gluttons were emaciated beyond recognition. By his voice alone did Dante recognize his kinsman Forese, whose time in Purgatory had been shortened by the prayers of his wife Nella. Forese talked with Dante for a while on the affairs of Florence, and predicted the fall of his brother Corso Donati.

The dazzling splendor of the angel of the seventh terrace warned them of his approach, and, lightened of one more “P,” Dante and his companions climbed to where two bands of spirits, lascivious on earth, moved through paths of purifying flames, stopping as they passed to greet each other, and singing penitential hymns. Here, Statius explained to Dante why the shades of the sixth terrace were lean from want of food when they possessed no longer their physical bodies. “After death the soul keeps its memory, intelligence, and will more active than before, and as soon as it reaches either the banks of Acheron or the Tiber, a shade form is attached to it which acquires the soul’s semblance, and has every sense given it, even that of sight.”

Guido Guinicelli, from out the flame-furnace, explained to Dante the punishments of the terrace: “Thus are our base appetites burned out that we may enjoy future happiness,” and Arnaud the Troubadour, hating his past follies, weeping and singing, implored Dante’s prayers. It was only by telling him that the fire lay between him and Beatrice that Vergil prevailed on Dante to walk into the flames, which, though they tortured him by the intensity of their heat, did not consume even his garments. As they left the fire, the sun was setting, and they passed the night on the steps of the next terrace, Statius and Vergil watching Dante as the goatherds watch their flocks. In a dream the sleeping poet saw Leah, symbolical of the active life, in contrast to her sister Rachel, of contemplative life. On waking, Vergil told him that he would accompany him further, but not as a guide; henceforth his own free will must lead him. “Crowned, mitred, now thyself thou ’lt rule aright.”

Dense green were the heavenly woodlands of the terrestrial paradise; sweet were the bird songs, as sweet the songs of the whispering foliage; and on the pleasant mead, beyond the dimpling waters of a stream so small that three paces would span it, walked a beautiful lady, Matilda, gathering flowers and singing an enchanting melody. At Dante’s request, she came nearer, and explained to him that God had created the terrestrial paradise from which man was banished by his fault alone. To vex him it was raised to this height. Its atmosphere was not that of the earth below, but given it from the free sphere of ether. Here every plant had its origin; here each river had its virtue; Lethe destroyed the memory of sin; EunoŽ restored to the mind the memory of things good.

As they talked, Hosannas were heard, and in the greatest splendor appeared the Car of the Church Triumphant. First came the seven golden candlesticks; following them, many people in resplendent white garments; next, the four and twenty elders, lily crowned–the twenty-four books of the Old Testament–singing to Beatrice “O blessed Thou!” Then four six-winged, many-eyed living creatures described both by Ezekiel and John surrounded the massive car drawn by the Gryphon, emblem of our Lord in his divine and human nature, white, gold, and vermilion-hued, part lion, part eagle, whose wings pierced the heavens.

Three maidens, red, emerald, and white, the Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity, danced at the right wheel of the car; four clad in purple, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, walked at the left wheel. With them came two old men, Luke and Paul; then four together, James, Peter, John, and Jude, and last an aged man walking in slumber, Saint John, writer of the Revelation. These last were crowned with red roses and other tinted flowers. With a crash as of thunder, the car stopped before Dante, and a hundred angels, chanting, showered on it roses and lilies. In the midst of the shower, Beatrice descended, clad in a crimson robe, with a green mantle and a white veil, and crowned with an olive wreath. Thrilling with his ancient love, Dante turned to Vergil to sustain him, but Vergil was gone. As he looked again, her eyes, less severe from the veil that enveloped her, were fixed on him as she rebuked him, and he was sustained only by the compassion in the sweet voices of the angels, which soothed him until the tears rained down his cheeks.

After her death, when she had arisen from flesh to spirit, Beatrice complained that her influence was dimmed, and that he had sought such depths that she had been compelled to go to the gates of hell to implore Vergil to bring him hither that he might learn his future sufferings if he did not repent. As he answered her, blaming the things that had led him aside with joys deceitful, he tried to gaze into her eyes, but stung with penitential thorns, fell senseless to the ground. Matilda, who stood by, seized him and plunged him into the river Lethe, that he might forget his past sin. Dripping, he was given to the four lovely maidens, who led him before Beatrice that he might look into her eyes, fixed on the Gryphon. A thousand longings held him fast while, “weary from ten years’ thirsting," he gazed upon her lovely eyes, now unveiled in their full splendor. Reproached at last by the seven virtues for his too intent gaze, Dante watched the car move on to the Tree of Knowledge, to which its pole was attached by the Gryphon. Dante, lulled to sleep by the hymn, was aroused by Matilda, who pointed out to him the radiant Beatrice, sitting under a tree surrounded by the bright forms of her attendants. The other attendants of the car had followed the Gryphon to the skies.

“Observe the car,” said Beatrice, “and write what thou hast seen when thou returnest home.” As she spoke, the car was attacked in turn by the eagle of persecution, the fox of heresy, and the dragon of Islamism; these driven away, it was disturbed by inward dissensions, the alliance between Boniface and Philip the Fair.

Rising, Beatrice called Dante, Statius, and Matilda to her, and as they walked upon that pleasant mead, she asked Dante the meaning of his continued silence. She explained the attacks on the chariot to him, but he declared that he could not understand her language. Then, at Beatrice’s nod, Matilda called him and Statius, and plunged them into EunoŽ, whence he rose regenerate, and prepared to mount to the stars.

Continue...

Preface  •  The R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the R‚m‚yana  •  Selections From the R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  Selections From the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained